Opening this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was The Illusionist, a film by Sylvain Chomet, director of the oscar-nominated animation Belleville Rendez-Vous. Set mostly in Edinburgh, its beautiful depiction of the city made it an obvious choice to get this year’s Film Festival off and running.
The plot concerns a French magician, struggling to find an audience in his native country. He sets his sites across the water to Great Britain, and through a chance encounter with a drunk Scotsman (are there any other kind?) ends up on the Western Isles where the rural community is much more impressed with his act than any city-folk thus far.
While there he meets a teenage girl impressed at the seemingly miraculous powers our protagonist possesses. Together, they travel to Edinburgh, where The Illusionist makes one final crack at making a living from his act.
One of the joys of animation for me is seeing the different art forms reflect something of the society they originate in. When one thinks of American culture, Disney animations come to mind; It’s difficult to describe Japan without thinking of anime; the inventive Wallace and Gromit have an inescapable British sensibility; and similarly there’s something very French about both this and Chomet’s previous film.
The narrative of the movie is essentially a series of 5-10 minute shorts held together by the ever evolving relationship between the illusionist and his young travelling partner. Like any father-figure, he wants her to be well provided for; and loves surprising her with gifts he has seemingly magicked into existence. However, he struggles to keep this illusion going as his stage act continues to falter. What will she do if she discovers he’s just as normal as everyone else?
Like the first half of Wall-E, the film never uses dialogue to get across the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Instead it relies on the strength of its animation to accurately portray the hopes and fears of its lead characters.
Despite some wonderful individual elements, my main complaint is that it’s a pleasantly diverting experience, but not necessarily an enriching one. Clocking in at 75 minutes I never really felt that inspired or engaged with the story or characters at its centre. So while the execution of the story was fairly faultless, the story itself lacks the grandness of animators like Miyazaki or Pixar. Instead it feels more like an idea for a thirty-minute short rolled out to make a feature film. Perhaps I’m just not French enough to appreciate it.