Originally written by legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati, The Illusionist (not to be confused with the live-action Edward Norton film of the same name) is a touchingly simple and beautifully drawn film by renowned animator Sylvian Chomet. When Tati died in 1982, he left behind the screenplay for The Illusionist, which he had intended to be shot in live-action. His daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, gave the script to Chomet (who earned praise for his critically acclaimed 2003 animated film The Triplets of Belleville). The result is a tender and moving full-length animated movie for adults.
The film takes place in 1959, and it tells the story of a magician named Tatischeff whose career has seen better days. Work is harder and harder to come by. A newfangled form of entertainment called rock and roll is sweeping the country and garnering the attention of young audiences while strangling off old vaudevillian ways. Magic is a dying art form, and Tatischeff is finding it increasingly difficult to find work. A dance hall is filled to the rafters with rabid teenagers watching a popular rock and roll group called Billy Boy and the Britoons perform. But when Tatischeff follows their act with magic tricks, the auditorium is occupied by only a mother and child, the dance hall's janitor, and a drunk or two asleep on the seats.
He moves from theater to theater and finds the same problem. This eventually forces him to the highlands of Scotland, where he lands work in a small tavern whose patrons find a working light bulb more fascinating than the illusionist's tricks. It's here that Tatischeff eventually befriends a young woman who finds his work charming. The girl moves in with him, takes care of his cooking and cleaning, and looks up to him like a daughter. Likewise, Tatischeff takes the girl under his wing, giving her new shoes and a roof over her head, even though he's broke and his prospects are bleak. The pair begins an unlikely friendship as they travel from gig to gig.
The magician eventually settles into a job in a small theater in Edinburgh, and the two move into a small hotel adjacent to the theater. He buys the girl a new pair of shoes and a coat, and he continues to lavish her with gifts until he's forced to find extra work just to make ends meet. But he's suited to do only one thing: perform magic tricks. And he's quite good at it, even with a feisty pet rabbit that refuses to stay in a hat and ruins some of his performances.
Animation is the best way to tell this story. There's little-to-no dialogue, aside from occasional grunts and laughter by the characters. And the story is richly told through music and the physical movements and facial expressions of each character. Chomet's attention to detail in this hand-drawn film is phenomenal. Even though the story is a tad bleak, the film's colors are vibrant and warm. Tatischeff is drawn as an obvious homage to Tati himself. He's a tall, lanky guy who moves with long strides and wears ill-fitting clothes. He's a bit awkward when moving about but graceful whenever he's performing his craft. The characters who share in Tatischeff's plight in a dying entertainment industry are weatherworn and weary, reflecting the hollow shell of their lifelong careers in show business. A wilting, old, flat-chested lounge singer flops her way onto the stage; an aging, rail-thin clown looks more like a sad clown without makeup; a stout, little ventriloquist is inseparable from his dummy. Even each member of Billy Boy and the Britoons is drawn with great detail, effeminately and foppishly frolicking off stage after every performance while ravenous teenage girls cheer.
There is constant rainfall throughout the film, allowing the bleak streets of Edinburgh to take on a life of their own. The film's most beautiful moments appear in shots of landscapes and puddles, and there's a striking image of a train rolling over a bridge reflected in a lake below. A lot goes on in every frame of The Illusionist, but the story never loses its focus.
The film is supposed to be a love letter to Tati's daughter. You can see that reflected in Tatischeff's relationship with the girl whom he showers with gifts and allows to sleep in his bed while he takes the couch. And while the magician's career suffers, the girl brings some light into his life. She even manages to warm the souls of the other characters, easing their pathetic existences by cooking for them and applauding their dying art at each turn.
But as the girl grows older, her dependency on Tatischeff wanes. She begins to see there's more to the world than this sad little life of show business the magician has carved for himself.
Tatischeff's tale is a forlorn and doleful commentary on change and the fleetingness of the industry. The cold merciless "out with the old and in with the new" is reflected in each character that struggles to survive and eventually succumbs to the tragedy of life on the bottom rung of the entertainment industry. At its heart, the film is about letting go. Much like Pixar's Up, it's a story about an aging man who gets a second chance at life through the affections of a child. But this is not an animated movie for kids. While the characters in Up manage to find happiness at the film's conclusion, The Illusionist reaches a more realistic climax. Some might find the ending of the film cynical and sardonic. But it brings the story together flawlessly.