The threat of obsolescence pervades every aspect of The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s follow up to The Triplets of Belleville. A defiantly 2-D, hand-drawn cartoon in a 3-D CG world, The Illusionist tells the story of an over-the-hill magician who, at the end of the 1950s, finds himself increasingly irrelevant to audiences, a dying breed of performer who cannot compete with the upheaval the rock-and-roll sixties are about to usher in. Chomet makes the point early, as the title character waits in the wings of a London theater, eager to take the stage while Billy and the Britoons, a swishy young rock group, performs encore upon encore for their adoring fans. The theater empties of all but a few spectators before the protagonist, know only as the Illusionist, begins his act. He’s an antique, a throwback to a vaudevillian era that’s already ended. And next to the limp-wristed, foppish Billy and the dandies who back him, the Illusionist represents an antiquated old-school masculinity that also comes off as a little old-fashioned: he’s not manly, exactly, but he is quietly dignified, proud, fatherly, and, in a way, chivalrous—perhaps to a fault.
Chomet’s film is based on a 50-year-old screenplay by Jacques Tati, and there is a simpatico quality to the pairing. Though Tati demonstrated true mastery of sound design, his hilarious send-ups of ultra-modern French society in movies like Playtime and Mon oncle (Chomet’s key touchtone) have a retro-sensibility; his dialogue-free films are Chaplin- or Keaton-esque oddities that have one foot in the silent era, despite—and also because of—their aural richness. Chomet, like Tati, apes a different period. Also eschewing dialogue, he employs a (sadly) outmoded style of animation that harkens back to the golden age of Disney (he cites 101 Dalmations as an inspiration for The Illusionist)—indeed, hand-drawn animation is so rarely practiced today that Chomet and his producers had to scour Europe in search of animators who could execute the cartooning. In The Illusionist, Tati’s and Chomet’s styles blend seamlessly. The result is exceptional and strangely retrograde. Aesthetically and structurally, The Illusionist is wonderfully anachronistic, a near masterpiece of handcrafted animation and visual storytelling. Yet this strange and often heartbreaking film also feels outmoded—in mounting a blistering critique of consumer culture it leans a little too heavily on easy, tired gender roles. Read Chris Wisniewski’s review of The Illusionist.