Arts & Events

Film Review: The Illusionist: The Re-animation of Jacques Tati

By Gar Smith
Wednesday January 19, 2011 - 09:12:00 AM

The wordless French comic, Jacques Tati (“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “Mon Oncle”), lives again, thanks to the magic of a well-drawn line and the vision of Sylvain Chomet (director of the Oscar-winning animated feature, “The Triplets of Belleville”). 

Nearly 28 years after his death, Tati takes to the stage once more, as the protagonist of a bittersweet tale that sends Tati’s animated avatar pirouetting through life’s struggles atop two pole-stiff legs that constantly seem about to bolt off in opposite directions. 

Going beneath Tati’s standard attire (cap, cloak and pipe), the animators of The Illusionist (devoted fans, who rewatched each of Tati’s classic movies at least ten times) have managed to capture the actor’s signature moves. As a result, The Illusionist’s aging and perpetually confused magician stumbles through life in Tati’s patented tip-toe dance of indecision — a marionette lifted not by his shoulders but steered by his hip strings. (Watching Tati’s comic gait is something like watching a stork trying to walk off a wedgie.) 

The story is based on an unproduced screenplay that Tati wrote as a “love letter” to his daughter, Sofie Tatischeff. The tale — delivered in a glorious 2-D world of artful sketches and watercolored landscapes — unfolds almost without words. (When the characters do speak, the sound of their voices actually becomes a distraction.) Producing this carefully wrought film required the work of 80 “core artists” and the assistance of another 100 animators from several outside studios. 

The artwork supports a somewhat grim worldview — a vision of humanity largely populated by grotesques who face a daily struggle to survive. A world where even those gifted with talents that set them apart may be doomed to fail — forever at risk of winding up penniless on some dark street corner. On the plus side, redemption can arrive in the form of something as simple as a free bowl of soup or a gift magically conjured out of thin air. 

It is the dawn of the television era and audiences are dwindling in Britain’s fading music halls. Beset by thinning crowds, the hardscrabble illusionist, “Tatischeff,” accepts every rebuff and indignity with solemn, stoic resignation. Equipped with little more than a rolled-up publicity poster and a rolling set of props that includes a carnivorous rabbit, Tatisheff finds himself playing second fiddle to a foppish British rock band. (Some may fail to see the humor in the running joke that portrays the “Britoons” as a band of giggling, flip-wristed sissy-boys.) 

Forced to look for work in ever-smaller venues, Tatischeff takes a job performing in a bar in a remote fishing village in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. And it is here that Alice, a young Scottish servant girl, enters the magician’s life. 

In a blessed relief from Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled, Alice is far from Disney-cute. (The overall look of this finely drawn film is more Dickens than Disney.) Alice has the common face of someone’s forgotten child trapped in difficult circumstances. A simple act of sleight-of-hand brings Alice hope that the world might actually offer some bright surprises — instead of a daily routine of predictable drudgery. So it’s no surprise (for the audience, at least) that, when the magician decides to move on, he finds he has a new companion. 

Tatischeff struggles to protect and nurture Alice, working several jobs on the sly to finance the illusion that new shoes and fancy clothes materialize by magic. Alice grows to become a young woman and falls in love. As her life expands, the magician’s life narrows. Disappointingly, when he accepts his inevitable separation from Alice, it comes without a word, a touch, a hug or a kiss — with nothing more than an unsigned farewell note about the illusion of human mastery over life. 

Atop a hill in Edinburg, he takes his final bow from the performing life and the film takes flight in an extraordinary panoramic swoop across the city’s rooftops and hills. (Campbell McAllister, the animator who worked on this remarkable scene, fondly calls it “the flying away farewell to Edinburgh.”) 

If you’re a fan of Tati and/or the “ancient art” of hand-drawn animation, this film will be a treat. (And, if you are a Tatiphile, you might even forgive Chomet for the tempting-but-avoidable scene in which Tatischeff darts into a dark theater and finds himself staring at the image of Jacques Tati cavorting onscreen in Mon Oncle.) 

The Illusionist opens January 21 at the Shattuck.