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Movie Review: The Illusionist (2010)

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I didn’t know what to expect from The Illusionist (the Opening Night Gala of the EIFF 2010), with only the general look and the fact that it’s set in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, to go on. But I’m glad to say it’s a stunning, visually inventive animated film with all the heart and charm that one could hope for.

The film follows a magician/illusionist as he performs in any and all places he can, usually to much less people than he would hope for. One of his gigs is travelling first to a remote town in Scotland (playing to a small audience in a pub) and eventually to the country’s capital, Edinburgh, where he’s joined by a young woman he met in the remote village.

As far as plot goes, the film is pretty uneventful. However, it's more about subtlety than it is bashing you over the head with over the top scenes. A remarkable aspect of the film is the fact that it is at least 80% without dialogue. There are some sporadic pieces of dialogue throughout, sure, but for the most part, this is more about wordless interaction than long speeches, much in the same way as the character of Mr. Bean. Actions speak louder than words, as they say.

It’s easily one of the nicest and most pleasant films I’ve seen in a while. When you’ve got so many films released nowadays that are full of car chases, explosions, blood, guts, and all manner of other horrible things, it’s nice to have a departure from that with such a sweet film as The Illusionist.

The actual technical animation on display here is nearly flawless, with a style that’s simultaneously engaging and yet very easy to look at. It looks like a kind of cross between the films of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and the Scottish comic strip, The Broons. The movement of the characters are slick and smooth and most, if not all, of the backdrops are simply jaw-dropping.

Due to how minimalist and simplistic the story is and the dialogue-less way director Sylvain Chomet chooses to tell it, it was almost inevitable the film would wear thin before the end, and here it happens about 20 minutes before the closing credits. But even if you start getting sick of not much actually happening story-wise, you’ve still got all the visuals to marvel at.

One of the things that gives the film a lot of it charm is the little touches added in that might go missed if you’re not paying complete attention. For example, in a scene outside a fish and chip shop, if you look closely at the menu on the window, it lists some very clichéd Scottish food (such as haggis and deep-fried chocolate bars) as a sort of in-joke. There’s as much to be admired by paying close attention as there is in just sitting back and taking in the overall style of animation.

Light, breezy, easy to take in and extremely enjoyable, The Illusionist is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and a great addition to the animated film catalogue. Where most (especially Hollywood) animations are full of explosive, often distracting, action, The Illusionist realizes that sometimes less is more. I can only hope we'll see more of this kind of animation in the future.

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About Ross Miller

  • I found The Illusionist to be a feast, a visual enchantment smuggling a subtly deeper human relationship story. Some of the scenes are especially stunning, resembling at times the best work of larger and richer studios.

    But the story ends up being what one ponders after leaving the theater. There is much subtlety in the interactions of all the characters, and each detail is important in understanding the tale. Miss just one – as I did once I’d read several reviews of this movie to see what I missed – and you are left to speculate as to what the movie was saying. This lost detail merely shifted the movie into the realm of impressionism – and it still worked well for me anyway.

    As a former performer, I can identify both with the characteristic British rock band, representing a new art world which is pushing out the old, and with those being pushed out by that new art being forced to deal with the altered meaning of their lives now that their performing careers come to an end. It added a layer of depth to this movie which those whose performance experiences were all from the audience can never know.

    This is a movie which will reveal more detail each time you watch it, expanding your understanding and making the story grow more richly layered as all great art can do. I heartily recommend this movie.

  • Mary Durkacz

    Comprehensive review which mirrored my feelings about this charming, witty film exactly.

    Thank you.