Sylvain Chomet’s animated film, The Illusionist is unlike any animated film I had ever seen, in both visually and in the story’s tone. Oscar nominated for best animated feature alongside Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, it’s hand drawn animation, minimal dialogue and softer tone makes it stand out in an a quiet and dignified sort of way.
The artistic qualities of the film are very different than what we are used to today. Compared to calculated 3D computer animation, this hand drawn animation feels more than alive. The warm watercolor inspired palette and shading gives The Illusionist a beautiful, old world look. With very minimal dialogue, each character is shown with perfect distinction. Each has their own style of movement that matches their look.
The story follows a struggling magician in 1959. Rock and roll music and television are the new trends, quickly replacing magicians and other live entertainers. Unable to find work in France, the magician travels to Scotland. There, he meets a young girl, who becomes enchanted by his kindness, that he disguises as magic. She follows him to Edinburgh, where he tries to keep up the illusion of magic for her. However, with no work and no money, the illusion he creates for her becomes increasingly difficult to create.
The magician is a tall, gray haired, patient man. He can wait at the side of the stage through numerous encores from the latest rock band to get his chance to perform. And he will still put on his best show, even if only two people are in the audience. With the girl, he sees the things she needs (new shoes and a smile at first), buys them for her as a gift, but makes her believe they came to her by magic. It’s a very sweet thing to do.
The girl looks to be in her early teens, innocent and at the far edge of childhood ready to explore the world. Leaving home to follow the magician to Edinburgh is a big moment, and not necessarily a smart one, since she is counting on the magician to look after her. She seems to sincerely believe in magic, that it brings her that new coat she was in the store window and shoes too.
Sadly, we are shown that this magical lifestyle is hard. In the hotel the girl and magician stay in, there are many characters in the old entertainment industry fallen on hard times. There is the ventriloquist and his doppelganger dummy, the sad alcoholic clown and the trapeze triplets, who the girl thinks are all happy, satisfied people, like she imagines the magician to be. Some of the images revealed to us about their hardships are heartbreaking.
In the end, we understand that the title The Illusionist refers to the magician’s ability to turn the world into a more magical place for the girl. His tricks empower her to believe, leave home and come of age gradually in a world harsher than she realizes. This is a sweet, beautiful film with a timeless, soulful feeling that nearly all of us can relate to and remember when we still believed in magic.