Beautifully rendered animation, although nostlagic story is slight

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Tue, 06/15/2010 - 06:25

Screenwriter-director Sylvain Chomet chose to go the old-school route when he adapted French comedy legend Jacques Tati's previously unmade script into an animated feature.

The creator of the wonderful Belleville Rendez-Vous (aka The Triplets of Belleville), harnessed an army of animators to hand-draw much of the film, frame by frame. The production team had to hunt high and low for artists with the requisite drawing skills, computers having made many such animators redundant or at least forced them underground.

The tortuous creative process has paid off. The Illusionist is a work of art that you could hang on the wall. It's a lovely film to look at, with its vivid, romantic imagery of Fifties Scotland and, in particular, the Scottish capital Edinburgh, where most of the action is set. There's a fluid movement to detail work, such as the movement of the magician's large, long-fingered hands, or a crowd of people in a street.

The main drawback is that the story is slight and there's a sense that perhaps more meat could have been added to Tati's melancholy ode to the passing era of Music Hall entertainment.

At the centre of the film is an old Jacques Tati-esque illusionist who has discovered that there is waning interest for his sleight of hand tricks in this era of cinema and rock 'n' roll.

In his quest for greener pastures, he moves from Paris to Edinburgh, via London and the Western Isles, adopting a naive, young Scottish girl who fully believes in his magical powers and follows him to Edinburgh.

The two stay in a hotel occupied by washed-up performers, and through a series of incidents learn something about themselves.

As with Belleville Rendez-vous there is little dialogue spoken. People more like grunt and mutter barely comprehensibly in French, Gaelic, or English.

The story unwinds at a gentle pace with its subtle, nostalgic tone punctuated with the kind of amusing slapstick sequences that you might find in old black-and-white comedies. There's a playfulness to the film, while the central theme, about being careful about keeping up appearances, could be talking to kids.

But there's also a dark side to the vision that comes out in the visual humour involving a drunken scotsman, namby pamby rock stars, a gang of thuggish school kids, and, my favourite, the magician's demonic rabbit.

Being from Edinburgh, a big part of the fun of watching this film was seeing how the animators had rendered the Scottish capital. Chomet said that he was drawn to the light in Edinburgh and his army of animators have done a brilliant job capturing the changing hues, the up-and-down landscape, and the mystique of this historic city.

Edinburgh landmarks are vividly captured from Holyrood Park bursting with bushes of yellow gorse, to the warm wooden tones of the inside of the Barony Bar, from the detailed architecture of Edinburgh New Town, with a tumble of domes and steeples, to the smoke-fugged interiors of Edinburgh train carriages.

Imagery and characters, with all the fantastic detail, will make an impression that is likely to last. It's a pity that there's not more to the story.

The Illusionist opens the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival