‘The Illusionist’ has animated tricks up its sleeve

Posted Jan. 27, 2011, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:04 p.m.

In theaters

THE ILLUSIONIST, written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, 80 minutes, rated PG

For those who have seen Sylvain Chomet’s outstanding, 2003 Academy Award-nominated film, “The Triplets of Belleville,” it would be difficult to believe that he could top it with his latest animated film, “The Illusionist.” And guess what? He hasn’t.

But he’s come close.

The film is so good, it recently earned the Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Film it deserves. It’s a beautifully rendered mood piece that features so little dialogue, it might have been a silent movie — if a silent movie didn’t employ title cards to help nudge the story along, which this film doesn’t.

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Instead, Chomet leans hard on his talent to tell his story with almost no words (there’s the occasional grunt, the happenstance “oui,” a muddled line used more to capture a sense of emotion than to offer a clear sense of insight). He also leans hard on his audience to trust him to tell his story well. That he accomplishes each is an admirable feat.

The movie is a slick sleight-of-hand for many reasons, beginning with the script, which comes with an intriguing history.

Since the movie is based on a character who smacks of Jacques Tati, the writer, director and actor who is perhaps best known for directing such films as “Mon Oncle” and “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (and also for co-starring in them), it’s no wonder that the dialogue here is mashed into nothingness, since that’s how Tati approached his own work. The film’s other kicker? Tati actually wrote the script’s first draft before his death in 1982. It fell into Chomet’s hands, who reworked it, and what we have now in the main character is an affectionate nod to Tati himself.

You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the film, but it does deepen the experience of watching it. Set in the 1950s, when the stage’s footlights were giving way to the brighter lights of televisions and jukeboxes, the film follows Tatischeff (Tati’s real surname), an illusionist of a certain age who is approaching the end of his career thanks to the intrusion of technology.

The movie opens in Paris, where Tatischeff is reduced to performing his act to the slim few who still care that a man can pull a scrappy rabbit out of a hat, which isn’t many — certainly not what it used to be. And so, knowing there is little left for him here, he leaves for London, where he’s struck with the onslaught of rock ’n’ roll just as it’s taking root. With no chance to compete with this brash, new wave of music and its screaming fans, he travels on to Scotland, where he finds work at a local pub and meets Alice, a poor chambermaid who is fascinated by him.

Soon, this odd couple is living together. He’s older than she is by decades and so he assumes a fatherly role, taking money he doesn’t have to buy Alice a few things that might make her happy — new shoes, a beautiful dress, a smart coat. But for Tatischeff, the money is running out and worse, Alice has caught a younger man’s eye. What’s he to do? Since he’s a gentleman, he let’s Alice choose her own course.

Mirroring “The Triplets of Belleville,” the water-colored animation in “The Illusionist” is presented in such a way that it gives the movie a unique sense of style and depth — you feel as if you could reach into it. Occasionally, Chomet allows for bits of computer-generated imagery to shock the screen with the unexpected, such as in a train’s realistic puff of smoke or in the scenes in which silvery sheets of rain fall from the sky (there is another effect that’s so smashing, it won’t be revealed here — but you’ll know it when you see it, and movie buffs just might faint at the sight of it).

Each of these moments are as real as the characters Chomet has created. And while it’s true that his movie loses momentum midway through, that’s a quibble because it finds itself again. For a film of so few words, the human emotions that are explored and revealed here are as staggering as they are ironic. Nobody communicates traditionally in “The Illusionist,” but since Chomet lifts the movie to a high level of art, what’s clearly communicated is that this is one of last year’s best films.

Grade: A-

New on Blu-ray

PLEASANTVILLE, written and directed by Gary Ross, 116 minutes, PG-13

Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville” takes a satirical look at moral perfection, sexual repression and traditional, gender-based roles through the lens of a fictional, black-and-white 1950s television show.

Called “Pleasantville,” the show features a cast of characters so ridiculously perfect, uptight and moral, they make the cast of “Father Knows Best” look as if they were raised in a red light district.

Still, for bookish David (Toby Maguire), who lives in present-day America and comes from a badly broken home, this confectionery never-never land is something of a tonic, a place where Mom always will love Dad, dinner always will be served at 6, and everything — apparently — always will be all right.

Or will it? When David and his slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are  transported into “Pleasantville,” they not only lose their identities and become characters on the show, but they also quickly learn that the world David once idealized is actually a soulless void of overwhelming imperfections.

Ross, who wrote “Big” and “Dave,” wants more from “Pleasantville” than just heartwarming fantasy. He wants us to know that in spite of our problems, we’ve nevertheless grown as a society. When David and Jennifer begin to challenge the people of Pleasantville to give into their repressed passions, color begins to touch their cheeks — which prompts relief from some, and rampant discrimination from those who always will fear the unknown.

In spite of its preachy ending, “Pleasantville” is a good film marked by solid performances and a searing wit.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

Christopher Smith’s column will not appear in the print pages of the BDN for the next three months while he works to finish his next book, the Wall Street thriller “Running of the Bulls.” His column will return on May 1, in time for the summer blockbusters. In the meantime, Smith’s blog, which is updated daily, will be featured online on the Lifestyle page at www.bangordailynews.com.

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