In 1956, between making the films Mon Oncle and Playtime, the famous French actor, writer and director Jacques Tati wrote a film that served as a letter to his estranged daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel. He had abandoned her as a baby and wanted to make the film in an attempt to reconcile with her. However, it was never made into a movie.
In 2000, his other daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, handed the script over to Sylvain Chomet, who had previously made a series of comic books and had been working as an animator at the Richard Purdum studio in London. Several years later, he made his feature film debut, an animation called The Triplets Of Belleville which was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Chomet then decided that, for his next project, he would at last bring Tati’s script to life as an animation called The Illusionist.
The film is an almost silent story about a down-on-his-luck illusionist, largely based on Tati himself, who was once a very popular performer in Paris, France. Looking for work, he accepts a gig on a small Scottish island of Iona. His show is seen by a little girl called Alice who believes the illusionist is truly gifted with magical powers.
The animation, all of which is hand-drawn, provides a breath of fresh air from the kind one would find in the mainstream. It was released in the same year as How To Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 – it also competed against them at the Academy Awards that year for the Best Animated Film Oscar – and eschews their busy, flashy, computer animation for something far more simple. It makes The Illusionist delightfully gentle and low-key.
However, the beauty of the film is not only the simplicity of the animation but its wonderfully basic story too. The thin plot and lack of dialogue is secondary to the rich and touching characters at the heart of The Illusionist. Watching the development of the relationship between the illusionist and his wide-eyed young fan is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking. There is also plenty of humour from their dynamic, inspired by the visual wit and comedic invention that Tati demonstrated at his very best.