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The Illusionist

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The Illusionist

© Rex Features

Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks may dominate animation in movieland, but every so often a little gem from outside that titanic trio slips through the cracks. Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist is one such example. Based on an unmade script from French cinema legend Jacques Tati, it's a lovingly-realised throwback to old school 2D animation, a poignant story of a middle-aged entertainer who finds himself sidelined as rock 'n' roll begins to take hold of popular culture at the tail end of the '50s.

Belleville Rendez-Vous creator Chomet's idiosyncratic animation and Tati's bittersweet tale are in perfect harmony. The animation may blunt the tragedy of the story somewhat, but it adds a timeless, dreamlike quality that may not have come across in live-action. The titular illusionist journeys from France to England then on to Scotland seeking out increasingly obscure venues to perform his routine. Along the way he picks up Alice, an impressionable young girl who believes she's witnessing real magic. The pair find a place to live in Edinburgh and the illusionist goes to work at a small local theatre while Alice plays homemaker. They wrestle with the magician's disobedient rabbit, meet a trio of gymnasts, a permanently drunk ventriloquist and suicidal clown (which provides the film with its darkest moment).

The central relationship plays out as a father/daughter one, highlighting the autobiographical nature of the story - in its original incarnation The Illusionist was intended as a live-action feature with Tati's daughter Sophie Tatischeff as Alice. As events unfold the magician begins to shower Alice with gifts, but the arrival of a boy pulls her attention away from her adopted father-figure. This leads to a heartbreaking if inevitable conclusion, with Chomet really tugging on the heartstrings as the conjurer writes a short but devastating note to Alice.

The Illusionist plays out with mainly no dialogue; there are grunts, groans and snorts but never extended scenes of back-and-forth conversation. Instead, Chomet uses moving images to shape his warm and emotionally complex story. It proves that the old-fashioned approach of painstakingly drawing out every frame still has value as 3D and computer technology bounds forward to create elaborate CGI toons. The sublime craft and artistry of The Illusionist is, for sure, thanks to that human touch.

Every frame has been meticulously fashioned with detail and depth. The renderings of London's King's Cross station and the streets of Edinburgh look fantastic on the big screen, as do the smoky interiors of the theatre venues and the offbeat character drawings. Though they appear very briefly, each member of rock band Billy Boy And The Britoons has their own unique and quirky style. A final swooping shot over Edinburgh closes the movie and, although it looks to be computer-aided, it doesn't spoil what's been a charming and wonderful journey.


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