Utter the magic word "work," and Judge Russell Engebretson will vanish in a puff of smoke.
Can an animated cartoon approach the dizzying heights of artistry attained in a painting by, say, Claude Monet? Short answer: Yes.
The Illusionist, based on an original screenplay by Jacques Tati and directed by Sylvain Chomet, received numerous film nominations and awards, and was an Academy Award Nominee in 2010 for Best Animated Feature.
Facts of the Case
In the late 1950s, a stage magician in the twilight of his career is making a marginal living in Paris. After losing control of his cranky, nipping rabbit in between acts, he is fired and travels to London in search of a new gig. During an otherwise ignored performance at a posh outdoor affair, he catches the eye of a drunken Scotsman who invites him to perform at a pub in Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland—a place so isolated that a light bulb is considered a wondrous new device.
A young teenage girl—probably an orphan—who cleans the pub and its rooms becomes entranced with the magician, and he in turn begins to treat her as a surrogate daughter. He buys her a pair of red shoes to replace her ugly, beaten work shoes. After a successful series of shows, he leaves the island only to find that the girl has followed him onto the ferry. When they arrive in Edinburgh, he gives her his hotel room bed while he sleeps on the couch. He doggedly scrabbles from job to job trying to earn a living wage with his dying magical craft, a form of entertainment that is steadily being supplanted by live rock 'n' roll acts and television.
The sad resignation of The Illusionist, its realistic take on age and regret, is something I rarely see in American cinema, and is simply startling in an expensive (around $18-20 million U.S. dollars), full-length animated feature. Not to say this is an entirely gloomy film. There are plenty of humorous interludes that range from slapstick, as when a clown uses a trick squirting flower on his own face to wash off his makeup, to edgy sitcom, in which the magician mistakenly believes the girl has used his rabbit companion as meat for a savory stew.
A portion of the film's downbeat mood is attributable to Jacques Tati's fifty-year-old script for a movie that he may have decided was too personal to shoot. French director Sylvain Chomet has refashioned the script, but apparently retained much of its flavor. The cartoon magician's physical resemblance to Tati is, of course, not coincidental. In one scene, the magician ducks into a theater that is playing director Tati's Mon Oncle only to be confronted by a real film clip version of himself. The similarities between the two are remarkable.
Unlike the beautiful but highly stylized animated feature, The Secret of Kells, this film is quite realistic. People and objects are neither stiff nor rubbery. Humans obey the laws of physics, and although they are drawn in relatively caricatured proportions—long necks, extra large noses and chins, and so forth—I'm reminded of the exaggerated expressions and broad body language used by stage actors, rather than the more typical cartoon character whose face-stretching and crazy gesticulations are drawn for over-the-top comic effect. Landscapes are almost completely realistic. Whether it's the green hills and tan plains of the countryside, the clear blue or overcast sky, the rippling waves of a stream, the steely gray whitecaps of the ocean, or the urban landscapes of Edinburgh; the backgrounds are exquisitely detailed renderings that have the appearance of animated water paintings. I love the hand-drawn animation and coloring; it is completely different in appearance from the chrome hard slickness of CG animation, and exudes a kind of warmth and humanity that is not only endearing, but properly serves the melancholy subject of the film.
English subtitles are provided, but hardly needed. The little dialogue present—whether in French, Gaelic, or English—is mumbled and purposefully almost inaudible. Following the technique used by Tati for his films, comic sound effects and music come to the fore, while speech is muted. The characters' gestures and facial expressions tell us all we need to know. The DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces the pensive and gentle piano driven theme with lovely clarity. There is not much rear speaker action, but there is a nice wash of ambient surround sound that supports the emotional tone of the movie. The Blu-ray 1080p transfer does a great job of reproducing the detailed pastels and occasional brighter colors. Panning scenes and swirling aerial shots of the city are impressively solid. I did not spot any digital artifacts.
Sony's extras are stingily sparse. This pioneering work of animation deserved a full slate of extras and interviews. Instead, we get a three and a half minute, non-speaking featurette that contains shots of artists working on their drawing boards, and later a small orchestra playing the score. It's not much more than a behind-the-scenes teaser. There is a bonus DVD version of the movie included with the BD, a single-layer disc with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. It's a decent transfer, but would have been better with a DTS soundtrack and the higher bit-rate potentially available on a dual-layer disc. Normally, I'd say the DVD saves you from entrusting the BD to the not-so-tender mercies of the kids, but I don't think the story will appeal to most kids or young adults. I suppose the DVD will provide a watchable version for those who do not yet own a Blu-ray player.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To be blunt, I hate the keep-case cover. It is utterly wrong; dare I say deceptive? The colors are too hard and bright; a burst of light illuminates the characters from behind; and worst of all, they are smiling—even grinning—in moronic Disneyesque delight. Yes, it might sell a few more copies to unwary adults who think they are getting a cheap bit of cartoon fluff to distract the children for an hour or two, but in the long run this sort of misleading advertising only makes for burned customers leery of a future impulse purchase.
I'm afraid the realistic and rather sad theme of this movie will be a turnoff to some viewers, but The Illusionist is a visually gorgeous classic-to-be and an essential Blu-ray purchase for any serious fan of handcrafted animation.
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