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What’s Wrong with 'The Illusionist?'

Ed Hooks explains why Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a frustrating near miss. The lack of dialogue is not the biggest problem with the film. More significantly the girl’s character is not fleshed out.

A few posts ago, someone asked me if I thought Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist would have been a better film if it had more dialogue.  At the time, I had not yet seen it and couldn’t give an opinion.  It finally opened in Chicago, I saw it and am ready to discuss it.

Regarding the particular question about dialogue, I think yes, the film probably would have benefited from some dialogue. Either that, or it needed more justification for the lack of it.  It is established that the old man (the illusionist) and the girl (Alice) who attaches herself to him speak different languages, necessitating a lot of gesturing and sign language between them.  It became tiresome after a while and drew attention to the lack of dialogue. If no-dialogue was the way it had to go, then it would have worked better for the girl to actually be mute, unable to speak.  I agree with the person who posed the question in this blog: The movie probably would have worked best if the two lead characters simply both spoke English.

The lack of dialogue is not, however, the biggest problem with the film. More significantly the girl’s character is not fleshed out.  She is almost a stick figure, moves almost always with the same rhythm and has little, if any, facial animation.  I did not empathize with her at all and could not understand why she was so self-centered. It should have been obvious to her after a while that the old man was broke, and yet she continued to drop hints about how much she would love to wear nice things like the dress and coat in the store window.  If she had been, say, eight years old, it would have made sense because little kids don’t know any better.  But during the course of the story, she blossoms from a girl to a young woman.  That evolution made it necessary for her to be a teenager as the story opened.  And a teenager should be able to see that the illusionist is not drawing any audiences and is financially floundering.  Not only that, the story has her believing that the old man can make actual, for-real magic. Again, maybe an eight-year old would have such faith, but it stretches credibility to have a teenager believe it. 

The main through-line in the movie is that the illusionist tries to protect the girl’s innocence by “magically” producing all of those nice things she desires.  She dresses up, gets older, falls in love and ultimately learns that the old man’s magic was just a trick.  Magic does not really exist.  It is a lesson in life. 

I have read articles about script development for the film, and it looks to me like that is where the movie got off-track.  Sylvain Chomet did not really make a movie out of the story that Jacque Tati told.  He took the Tati story, which was arguably too personal to have made it to the screen, and he put his own spin on it.  In Tati’s original script, the girl’s lover – the handsome man in the building across the alley – is the one who tells her that magic doesn’t really exist.  Mr. Chomet had the old man tell her himself via a note on the table, and it just does not work emotionally.   The movie lacks a satisfactory resolution.

We should mention the rabbit, though, because that single character almost steals the whole show.  I wish I knew if the Tati script originally called for a mean-tempered rabbit, but I have a hunch it did not.  The rabbit is used in The Illusionist the same way the dog was used in Chomet’s The Triplets of Bellville. This magician’s rabbit is a nasty, finger-biting, temperamental, uncooperative creature.  Hands down, the most entertaining sequence in the film involves the rabbit’s possible involvement in a rabbit stew.

This is a frustrating movie because it is so beautiful to look at. You really want the story to rise to the level of the backgrounds.  The city of Edinburgh Scotland is every bit as lovely in this film as Paris was in Brad Bird’s Ratatouille.

The illusionist himself, designed to resemble the real Jacque Tati, is delicately presented, and his performance evokes empathy as well as sympathy.  That is not enough to save the film.  My opinion is that Tati’s original script was too personal, more like a diary than a film, and there is good reason why it was unproduced and unpublished for so many years.  The movie sort of says, “Here I am in all my beautiful and sensitive glory if you want to drop by and visit.  But I really don’t care if you do.”  It is too bad, because Sylvain Chomet is one of the most talented animators living.  The Triplets of Belleville was an awesome achievement, and The Illusionist does not even come close. 


There is an interesting article in the February 21st edition of The New York Times (“Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites like Twitter” by Verne G. Kopytoff) asserting that blogs like this one are losing ground to Twitter.  I am neither a Twitter nor a Facebook person, but I do enjoy a good discussion with people who share my interests.  If you have a topic you want to kick around in this forum, or a film you want to discuss, let’s do it here.