I absolutely loved Silvain Chomet’s 2003 film, “The Triplets of Belleville,” so much so that I watched it twice in one evening. It was such a beautiful mix of unusual animation, humor, creativity and pathos. So when I heard that Chomet was working on a new film, this one from an unproduced Jacques Tati script, you can imagine my excitement.
Sadly, “The Illusionist” is a big disappointment, and the ways it fails highlight what was so special about “Belleville.” For all its quirk and humor, “Belleville” had a plot straight out of a summer blockbuster. A grandson gets kidnapped by mobsters, and a doggedly devoted grandmother chases his captors across the ocean and attempts a daring rescue. “Illusionist,” on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a plot at all. An aging magician slides down the ladder of performing arts, from the big stage to performing at pubs to eventually exhibiting kitchen items and undergarments as a sort of living mannequin in a store window. Along the way, he picks up a young lady, who might maybe believe that his magic is real, and one way or another, enjoys his willingness to procure new shoes, jackets, handbags, and jewelry for her. I understand that this is a cartoon, a sort of fantasy, so I shouldn’t ask too many questions about their relationship, but it just stretches past the point of believability. This is a weakness of “Illusionist” in contrast to “Belleville;” while the love between a grandmother and her grandson can go without saying, the relationship between an older man and a younger woman is incredibly complex, and needs to be talked about.
But where “Belleville” effortlessly communicated everything without words, “Illusionist” stretches, and often breaks in its attempt to do so. There are scenes here where you just wish the characters would flat-out SPEAK to each other, instead of engaging in the ridiculous game of hand signals and little verbiages they use instead.
“The Illusionist” meanders, wanders, tries to recapture the magic, achieves some funny and charming moments, but never adds up to much, and fails far more often than it succeeds. It is all the more reason to believe that “The Triplets of Belleville” is a very special film, and not one to be duplicated.