The Illusionist (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
May 12, 2011 by Dennis Amith
A beautifully animated film with humor, a lot of heart and also bit of sadness. “The Illusionist” is a visually striking, beautiful film which looks even better on Blu-ray!
Images courtesy of © 2010 Django Films Illusionist Ltd., Pathe Production S.A.S. and France 3 Cinema. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste)
FILM RELEASE DATE: 2010
DURATION: 80 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:85:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Subtitles: English, English SDH
COMPANY: Sony Pictures Classics
RATED: PG (For Thematic Elements and Smoking)
RELEASE DATE: May 10, 2011
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Original Screenplay by Jacques Tati
Adaptation by Sylvain Chomet
Produced by Sally Chomet, Bob Last
Executive Producer: Philippe Carcassonne, Jake Eberts
Co-Executive Producer: Jinko Gotoh
Music by Sylvain Chomet
Production Design by Jacques Arhex
Art Direction by Bjarne Hansen
Featuring the voices of:
Jean-Claude Donda as The Illusionist/French Cinema Manager
Eilidh Rankin as Alice
James T. Muir
From the Director of the Oscar®-nominated classic The Triplets of Belleville, THE ILLUSIONIST is a story about two paths that cross. While touring concert halls, theaters and pubs, an aging, down-on-his-luck magician encounters a young girl at the start of her life’s journey. Alice is a teenage girl with all her capacity for childish wonder still intact. She plays at being a woman without realizing the day to stop pretending is fast approaching. She doesn’t know yet that she loves The Illusionist like she would a father; he already knows that he loves her as he would a daughter. Their destinies will collide, but nothing – not even magic or the power of illusion– can stop the voyage of discovery.
From writer and director Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”, “The Old Lady and the Pigeons”, “Paris, Je T’aime”) comes “The Illusionist” (L’Illusionniste), which is based on an unpublished screenplay written by legendary French actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for “Best Animated Feature Film of the Year” and a winner of a European Film Award, a NYFCC Award and a National Board of Review Award for “Best Animated Film”.
“The Illusionist” takes place in 1959 and focuses on a man, The Illusionist (a magician) who has not done too well and is unable to find long-term employment in Paris.
So, the Illusionist moves to London where he takes his suitcase, his rabbit and belongings and hopes for employment in the city. What he finds out is that his act is following a rock band. Knowing that he doesn’t quite fit in to that crowd, he still manages to take on jobs wherever he can.
One day, he receives a job in a Scottish island. While staying in a room above a village pub, he meets a young, poor girl named Alice. Alice is very nice but he notices that she doesn’t have any decent clothes, her shoes are in the worst shape. But yet, she does all she can to make him happy. She is also a bit naive because she has never seen magic before and thus she thinks he is gifted with powers and is able to create money out of nowhere.
But the Illusionist enjoys the fact that this kindhearted girl looks up to him and so, he is wanting to return that kindness back to her, he purchases her a brand new pair of new shoes.
Overtime, like the other locations of where the Illusionist had worked before, along comes more competitive entertainment and once again, he must try to find a place to work and live.
Eventually he decides to move to Edinburgh, Scotland. So, while on the ship to leave, he is shocked to find out that Alice has snuck aboard the ship and joined him on his trip. And eventually, the two move to Edinburgh where the Illusionist takes up a job at a local theater and both end up living in a hotel where other performers are living.
While the Illusionist sleeps in a small couch and the girl sleeps in a nice bed, The Illusionist starts to look at Alice like a daughter and she looks up to him like a father. Whenever the two go out, she always goes by the shopping stores and when she sees these clothes from the window, she is always dreaming of wearing a nice jacket, having nice shoes and a nice dress. And so, the Illusionist begins to buy her those gifts, even though he does not have much money.
But Alice becomes a bit too dependent on the Illusionist for things and he finds himself having to work odd jobs that he doesn’t want to do but wants to make Alice happy.
Always naive, Alice always believe that the Illusionist can make money come from nowhere but the truth is, he is losing money and knows it will come to a point where he can no longer afford to take care of her.
What will happen to these two individuals who are like father and daughter? Can they be together forever?
“The Illusionist” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:85:1). This film is breathtakingly beautiful. The visual style is impressive and I was quite content with the character designs, the in-between animation for movements and most of all, the painted backgrounds. A lot of detail and vibrant scenes that catch your eye, there is no doubt that “The Illusionist” is visually stunning and looks incredible on Blu-ray!
I detected no banding, no speckles, no noise or any defects. Blacks were nice and deep, the film showcased a colorful pallet. Personally, I was very pleased by the film’s animation and background art.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Illusionist” is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The film features wonderful music but also utilizing ambiance of the crowded areas that the Illusionist would visit. There is no dialogue, in fact, despite hiring French talent to do the voicework of the characters, there is no dialogue and for the most part, it sounds more like gibberish.
Which is fine because a lot of Tati’s work at the time didn’t require much words, it was all about action and Hulot’s physical comedy. Granted, this is not supposed to be Hulot (although it looks very much like Hulot and in one instance, the Illusionist does have a brief encounter with a M. Hulot scene from “Mon Oncle”.
Subtitles are presented in English, English SDH and French.
“The Illusionist” comes with the following special features:
- The Making of The Illusionist – (3:30) A short video showcasing the sketches and artwork from the “The Illusionist” and behind-the-scenes footage of the staff working on making the film.
- Theatrical Trailer – (1:32) The original theatrical trailer for “The Illusionist”.
- Animated Line Tests – (2:23) Featuring five animated line tests (animated sketches on the backgrounds) for “Chasing the Rabbit”, “Window Shopping”, “Fish and Chips”, “Morning Routine Line Tests” and “Morning Routine Completed Version”.
- Before and After Animation Sequences – (8:46) A side-by-side comparison of the before and after animated sequences for three scenes.
Jacques Tati, a wonderful actor and one of the greatest film directors who has only created six feature films but watching it today, you can’t help but feel he was ahead of his time. The French filmmaker who saw the Paris that he grew up with becoming a different Paris that is today.
And Tati’s Charlie Chaplin-esque character Monsieur Hulot began with the 1953 film “Las Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) and would earn Tati his first Academy Award nomination for “Best Original Screenplay”.
For many people today, their introduction to Jacques Tati may be through his 1967 big budget film “Playtime” (featuring a modern Paris), his 1959 film “Mon Oncle” (featuring old Paris and Parisians becoming more modern/technological) but before these two magnificent films, “M. Hulot’s Holiday” would not so much focus on its surroundings but it would poke fun on economic classes but also showcasing the physical comedy talent of Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot.
And while we are able to watch Jacques Tati films showcasing the character of Monsieur Hulot, Tati had one script that was not produced. Right after his film “Mon Oncle”, Tati wrote the screenplay for “L’Illusionniste” (The Illusionist).
And why it was not produced may be because it was a film that was too personal for Tati and possibly was never meant to be a film.
There are controversies of what was the primary motivation of “The Illusionist”. One is that it was a screenplay that was meant to be a letter to his estranged eldest daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, his illegitimate daughter that he abandoned when she was a baby.
While there are others who felt it was written for his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, who gave the screenplay to “The Illusionist” writer and director Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”, “The Old Lady and the Pigeons”, “Paris, Je T’aime”).
Chomet was a strong believer that the screenplay was about Sophie and thus the controversial debate as those who believe the film is for Helga are very upset that Helga has not received any credit in the film at all.
And because the enormity of this controversy, this was probably one of the few films where several, major film critics had difficult reviewing or chose not to review it at all. The fact is that many were big supporters of Jacques Tati’s work. One of the biggest supporters was Jonathan Rosenbaum, you can read a lot of his essays especially about “Playtime” and how it changed his life but he and Roger Ebert were swayed from reviewing the film because of a letter from Richard McDonald, the middle grandson of Jacques Tati.
McDonald wrote to the film critics and the following was posted on their blog articles (Roger Ebert posted the entire letter here) which I will excerpt here:
It is well documented that my grandfather, Jacques Tati, wrote the script of l’Illusionniste as a sentimental semi-autobiographical reflection on how he was feeling about himself and in particular what he saw as his personal failings during the 1950’s. It is also documented that the script was written as a personal letter to his teenage daughter. What is less well known however is the depth of his deceitful torment and how in the script he wrestles with the notion of publicly acknowledging his eldest daughter, my mother, who he had under duress from his elder sister heartlessly abandoned during the Second World War. At the time performing at the Lido de Paris with his long term lover, my grandmother Herta Schiel, Tati’s deplorable conduct towards his first child was met with utter disgust by the majority of his then stage colleagues. Thrown out of the Lido by Leon Volterra, it was from this act, having been shunned by the Paris cabaret circuit for his caddish betrayal of one of their own and not as is often wrongly told to avoid Nazi recruiters, that Tati took refugee in the village of Sainte-Sévère in 1943, where he would later shoot Jour de Fete. The stage performers of Paris were a close knit community and in the same way that they had previously provided for Piaf they would also collectively help shelter Tati’s abandoned infant daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne whom as Piaf was born in Paris at the Hôpital Tenon located in the 20th arrondissement.
McDonald would further detail information that is quite crucial:
It has been acknowledged that the script for l’Illusionniste was written as a personal letter to Tati’s teenage daughter. Sophie his second child was not a teenager at the time of its writing, only his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne whom he had adversely neglected as an infant was. In 1955 Helga was thirteen years of age, Sophie had just turned nine. Consecutive versions of l’Illusionniste script exist dated from 1955 through to 1959.
But if you read further, McDonald would go into detail of his meeting with writer/director Sylvain Chomet and also put into question of how did Chomet get this script, a script that Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff protected.
This is information that is critical and why several film critics who adore Jacques Tati’s work can not review the film. The fact is that “The Illusionist” was never intended to use an image similar to Jacques Tati’s character Monsieur Hulot. But what you see is an animated version of Hulot or a person who looks very like him. The family of Tati, especially coming from McDonald, feel that their family name has been tarnished because of this film. That Tati’s screenplay has been sabotaged by Chomet.
But the story goes much further of how this film would have hurt Jacques Tati because this was meant to be a personal screenplay meant for his daughter that he was unable to be there for. A daughter that he abandoned and felt terrible for it. And the screenplay for “The Illusionist” shows that conflicted feeling that Tati felt.
The children of Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, the grandchildren of Jacques Tati stand opposed to the making of this film and have wanted people to know about the truth of this film. For those who love Tati’s work, will want to know the true story behind “The Illusionist”. Those who just want to watch an animated film, should by all means, then watch this film as it is. Because I found it to be a charming and wonderful animated film with striking visuals but also a storyline that keeps the humor and melancholy that those familiar with Tati films can probably feel happy watching it.
While I present the side of Tati’s grandchildren, it is also important that I do present the other side of the controversy and that is from “The Illusionist” producer Bob Last.
Last wrote to Roger Ebert with the following response (note: you can read the full version here, this is an excerpt):
Mr. McDonald has outlined an unusual account of part of the life of a cinema great and has proposed some interpretations of the origins and intent of the script; however the truth or otherwise of these assertions and insights is not rightly a matter for the film to concern itself with. Although Sylvain Chomet’s artistry has been enriched by the cinematic legacy of Jacques Tati in no sense does this film set out biographical claims, indeed its setting in Edinburgh, Scotland and the Western Isles clearly transposes it even further away from a world that would be familiar to Jacques Tati.
Last went on to say:
If the success or failure of all cinema were to be held to account against a historical, social or psychological analysis of the underlying state of mind of the script writer then it would cease to exist as a functioning art form. Cinema is underpinned by our embrace of the writer’s artifice, our understanding that while the writer may draw upon their inner selves and own experiences they are nonetheless writing for us, the audience.
It is regrettable that Mr McDonald has, in his public comments, attempted to implicate Sylvain Chomet and our film in a past we cannot know and have not set out to define or comment upon.
This is so difficult if you are a fan of Jacques Tati. “The Illusion” looks great and the story is very good…. but if you are a Tati fan, you know in your heart if what Mr. McDonald has said is correct, then this film was not supposed to be made. It is a painful film that was meant for one person and that person is his illegitimate daughter that he was unable to get close to, can’t get close to, will never get close to and this sadness has become part of his inner turmoil up to the last year of his life.
The more I think about this film and think about Tati, I remember how film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum would write about this film. Rosenbaum wrote, “If I exclude all these problems, I would agree (or at least assume) that Chomet’s film has some merit and some charm apart from all of these issues. But for reasons that I hope are clear by now, I’m not the right one to report on this.”
So, this is what I will say. I absolutely adore Jacques Tati’s work, I also enjoyed Sylvain Chomet’s work with “The Triplets of Belleville” and thus I will leave it at this. This is a wonderful animated film to come from France and I can understand how it is the most deserving for being recognized by the Academy.
If you enjoy Chomet’s work, I’m quite confident that you will definitely enjoy the visuals and the storyline of “The Illusionist”. The Blu-ray definitely showcases the vibrance and beautiful artwork of the crew who worked on this film and labored so hard to capture that style with the utmost efficacy.
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