It is quite possible that the best performance in a motion picture for 2010 was not accomplished by a living person. The lead character in The Illusionist registers more insight into the human condition than any of his counterparts in live action cinema.
By now, we know that Toy Story 3 took home the Oscar for 2010's best animated feature, but another nominee, The Illusionist, was equally deserving of a golden statuette. In an art form that has been hijacked by digital animation, director Sylvain Chomet offers a hand-drawn masterpiece. The Illusionist is packed with watercolor-like landscapes of Britain, France and Scotland that are breathtaking.
Chomet's movie is pure homage to the French film icon Jacques Tati. Little appreciated in the United States, Tati is cinematic royalty in France. He's an actor/director who helmed only six feature films, yet each was a master class in comedy. His most famous film was Mon Oncle, a 1958 Oscar winner even makes a cameo appearance when the magician ducks into a movie palace and we see a brief clip of Mon Oncle. Tati wrote the semi-autobiographical script for The Illusionist in 1956 but it was never filmed.
The main character, a struggling magician, is an animated version of Tati, a tall, rail-thin loner. The illusionist lives a solitary life, carrying his top hat, rabbit and deck of cards from town to town, performing before sparse and usually non-appreciative audiences.
When he visits an isolated fishing village in the Scottish highlands, he meets a young lady who is convinced that he is a fine magician. She follows him to Edinburgh, where he dotes on her as a father figure. Here the film takes on a Chaplin-esque feel. In fact, The Illusionist feels like a silent film, with its deliberate pacing and high emotions. Eventually, the young girl blossoms, finds love, and the magician slips away, barely missed, to another town. It turns out that his greatest illusion of all was helping a beautiful young lady magically appear from what was once an urchin.
The fact that The Illusionist is hand drawn and, not manufactured in some 3D bombast, is remarkable. The film combines grace, originality and style of the highest order. Each lovely frame is accompanied by a lovely score of music hall tunes, a staple of Chomet's other films (The Triplets of Belleville, The Old Lady and the Pigeons).
In 80 minutes, The Illusionist leaves you begging for more or, at the very least, for an encore. It's magical.