The Review: Magic and illusion is a dying breed. Those who keep its arts alive, like the Penn and Tellers of this world, are the exception rather than the rule. The entertainment industry decided it was more fun to show how the tricks were done than to leave us guessing, and at that point the wonder went out. Animation is maybe an industry to give magic hope; having gone through a real low point in the eighties, the Disney resurgence in the nineties, followed by the emergence of Pixar and computer animation, coupled with the use of animation in a much wider selection of storytelling capabilities, means that the best animation today stands toe to toe with its live action counterparts.
Often, there is something to gain from telling a story using the medium. In this case, the slightly naive charm of the late fifties and early sixties is reflected in the story of a stage magician struggling to make himself visible above the rock bands and the teenage entertainments that were starting to take over popular culture. The story moves through Paris and London to settle in Scotland, taking in the scenery along the way, and a combination of animation techniques, all supporting a style that makes the images feel like a moving work of art, evoke the period with an incredible level of period detail that would probably have cost significantly more to create in real life.
While the film looks gorgeous, and is extremely successful at evoking the mood and feeling of the period, it’s the characters that are the standouts here. Anyone expecting fast paced narratives or dense layers of plot should look elsewhere; this is a meditation on the passing of an era, told through the eyes of an aging magician, his young friend who tags along as soon as he comes into her life and a belligerent bunny who won’t do as he’s told. There’s very little dialogue, most of the time phrases or words being captured off screen or behind glass, and the story is entirely conveyed through the silent motions of its protagonists. This serves to enhance the humourous touches, as we see clips of the illusions, not always going to plan, but as the movie takes on an air of melancholia as it progresses, the absence of words allows us to form unbroken connections with the characters.
The Illusionist is a charming piece, not the most substatial movie ever made but full of character notes, entertaining set pieces and an almost tragic inevitability of what is to come. There’s a magic at work in the narrative which gives strong subtext when the conclusion comes (although to distinguish it, the feeling is real and definitely not an illusion), and what has been conjoured onto the screen is enough to charm even the hardest of hearts, if you can open yourself up to its mood.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a love affair with all of the visual arts (including a scene in the cinema where the central character’s real life inspiration is very directly referenced), but the message on that is clear – if you don’t go and watch, it won’t be there for much longer. So see this with a crowd to experience the animation in its full splendour, and share a chuckle and a sniffle with your neighbours.
The Score: 8/10