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The Illusionist (DVD: PAL, 5.1)
Label: Pathé
Time: 77 minutes

All sorts of worlds collide in this movie: a rural islander meets the city, a Frenchman explores Scotland, youth turns into adulthood and conventional film breaks into an animation. But the heart of the story is an old French magician struggling to make a living as new, more exciting entertainment floods Europe. Conversely, the fortunes of his young girl companion rise as new vistas appear in her life.

Half of what you need to know is all in the phrase Belleville Rendezvous (or The Triplets of Belleville outside the UK). Director Sylvain Chomet made that surreal, Oscar-nominated animation and his same distinctive, endearing and quirky styling brings this alive. At one point on stage a singer slinks around with the same exaggerated movements given to Bellevilleís female stage entertainers.

However, The Illusionist is a very different work, largely because the screenplay is adapted from an unpublished Jacques Tati script. Having discovered Tatiís 1950s film comedies between the cinema and DVD releases of this movie, I can vouch that seeing Tati in character as M. Hulot would be a wise precursor to watching this film, as the illusionistís character and movements mean far more once you have seen the hunched Tati in action. (Chomet comments in the extras that the character he animates is Tati himself, rather than the cartoonish Hulot).

In the film the protagonist takes his poster, top hat and white rabbit with him to theatres, but it is 1959 and crowds are finding the electric delights of rock and roll bands, film and television more exciting than pulling flowers from up a sleeve. The magician is forced to play smaller venues, such as garden parties, and travel further afield to earn a living.

Playing a gig on a remote Scottish island, ironically to celebrate the arrival of electricity there, he meets the innocent young Alice, who believes in his magical abilities and follows him back to the mainland. The illusionist uses his skills to Ďconjure upí shoes and a coat for her as he tries to find new forms of work, such as cleaning cars, that he can do while she is asleep.

In the end, he has to come clean about the illusion of his tricks, but he has given Alice experience of the city and that makes up for her disappointment.

This movie can hardly fail to charm. The care that the animators put into the misty and rocky scenery of Edinburgh is unmissable. Seeing a city half full of Ford Anglias is nostalgic, and the way that cars pull in to a stop reminds me of classic Disney, as in 101 Dalmatians. I also found myself watching with my fingers hovering over the Pause and Zoom keys on my remote, to capture background details that are easy to miss in the cinema (it paid off when spotting the pawnbrokers called Brown and Blair).

However, this will probably not appeal to viewers who enjoy car chase action movies. The plot is very thin, the dialogue barely exists and much of the joy is in background details, such as the acrobats that share the Edinburgh hotel and the rabbit going missing when stew appears for the first time.

The Illusionist is one that easily bears second viewing because much of the message comes across when reflecting on the story. Add the gorgeous animation and it is well suited to DVD, especially when you want to unwind.

The extras are superb, headed up by a 77 minute interview with Chomet from the Edinburgh Film Festival.  As you would imagine, this brings up all sorts of interesting background information, from the directorís working history and family life to letting the viewer know that in one scene a cow in the corner of the screen is doing its business. There is also a beautiful three-minute making-of that shows the process from hand-drawing to final production touches. Such is the personality in this film that I was close to tears just watching this extra.

Chometís works are exquisite labours of love that can touch the viewer deeply by his endearing approach and eccentric style. This one is a cinematic treat.

Derek Walker




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