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Based on a semi-autobiographical script by French New Wave actor and director Jacques Tati, The Illusionist is a story of childish wonderment and the passage into adulthood. It also serves as a love letter to classic stage performers. The story begins following a struggling old magician from one performance to another, each met by a meagre, unengaged crowd. With his venue stolen by wild musicians, he sets out to perform in smaller locations. When he performs for a tiny Scottish village, a poor young girl becomes enamoured with him, believing he can do real magic. This ignites a newfound sense of purpose in the magician, and they form a loving father-daughter relationship. She follows him to the big city, where he searches for work so he can provide for himself and the girl. As finding jobs becomes harder for the magician, the girl grows up and becomes enchanted by life in the city.

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Much like the films directed by Jacques Tati, The Illusionist is more or less a silent movie. It’s a bold thing to attempt in this day and age, but Sylvain Chomet has pulled it off before with his other animated feature; the bizarre and often hilarious Triplets of Belleville. The lack of dialogue does not stop him from creating rich characters and real emotions. The viewer sympathizes with the magician almost immediately. I found myself sad when he couldn’t find an audience, and I shared in his joy when he discovered a young girl who appreciates his dying art form. Even though the thought of an old magician being unsuccessful and ignored is sad, most of the movie is handled in a very humorous fashion. Visual gags and goofy caricatures are used to maintain a charming feeling in a story that would otherwise be dreadfully depressing. It seems that Chomet has a contagiously romantic view of lost specialty acts. His segment in Paris, Je T'Aime involved a family of mimes. Among the magician, this film also includes a ventriloquist, circus performers, and a clown as side characters; all down on their luck.

The loyalty to Tati’s style is immediately evident if you’ve ever seen one of his films. If you haven’t seen them and possess a taste for older French films, I strongly suggest you check them out. Playtime, Mon Oncle, and Mr. Hulot’s Holliday are all wonderful classics. The main character is drawn to look like Jacques Tati in his old age. His posture, expressions, and physical quirks are all here. At one point there is even a fun reference to Mon Oncle that will let you witness the similarities first hand. Chomet sticks closely to the hand drawn style that brought him success with The Triplets of Belleville, while using a lot less exaggeration in character design. The attention to detail, particularly in the backgrounds and environments, is staggering at times. It is a real visual marvel. If it weren’t for the characters and story at hand, I could’ve just stared at the patterns on the wallpaper or the dust permeating in the light by a window. There is some obvious CGI integration from time to time, mostly on vehicles. Even though it blends with the rest of the images fairly well, I can’t help but feel that its glaring presence harms the purity of the hand drawn animation in a small way.  

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The final moments of the film are very different than what precedes them. The playful tone that persists throughout much of the movie is nowhere to be found. The deceptively simple story ventures into some emotionally complex scenes. It isn’t a jarring shift, but it is enough to catch the viewer off guard. For the second time in the last year, I left the theatre believing I had just seen a wonderful film, but feeling genuinely upset ( Blue Valentine being the other film). If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed that Tati wrote this script towards the end of his career. There is a strong sense of resignation. I was surprised to find out that it was written very early in his career when he was having little success as a filmmaker. In fact, there is some controversy behind the script, its inspiration, and who it was written for. You can read more about that here in a letter from Tati's grandson to Roger Ebert. Regardless of the script’s origins, Chomet’s film holds up very well when judged by its own merits. It is a masterful display of animation that tells a beautifully melancholic story. Don't miss it.  


Sony Pictures has given this lovingly animated film a stunning 1080p transfer. Everything from fine outline details to the rich watercolour looks fantastic. Whether a scene takes place in a dimly lit room, a gloomy street, or the shore in broad daylight, the transfer holds up flawlessly without any distracting noise or artefacts. Not even in smoke and fog effects. The Illusionist has a realistic colour palette, so the hues aren’t always as vibrant as other animated movies on Blu-ray. If I had to find anything to complain about, it is that the sharpness of the picture makes the watercolour effect on the characters distracting at times. At moments, it may unintentionally resemble a camouflage pattern, or look like blocking. On close inspection, however, it is clear that this is a stylistic choice by the animators, and not a flaw of the transfer. My deep appreciation for the animation is strongly reinforced by this disc. This is one of the best Blu-ray images I’ve seen so far this year, and fans of the film or of animation should be thrilled with how it looks.

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Sony matches their wonderful video transfer with a rich DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. As mentioned earlier, The Illusionist is practically a silent film, so there are no dialogue levels to judge. The audio is comprised, for the most part, solely of sound effects and the score. Some French dialogue is present, but it is intentionally kept to short mumbles and is not translated into subtitles. Director Sylvain Chomet created original music for the film, and demonstrates that his talents reach further than animated storytelling. The soundtrack is very beautiful and well preserved by the audio track. There is not much directionality to the sound aside from passing cars and ambient background noise. Atmospheric effects are used well when there is a downpour of rain or a performance on a stage venue. With a theatrical viewing still fresh on my mind, I can confidently tell you that is a modest, but perfectly faithful audio track.

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This is the one area where this release falls short. Aside from the theatrical trailer and other Sony previews, all we have is three short and unsatisfying looks at the animation process. There is no dialogue present in any of the special features.

The Making of The Illusionist (03:30 SD): This is an incredibly short and incredibly uninformative “making of”. It is just a montage of the animators at work set to music from the film, and a brief scene of the musical performance for the score. There is no spoken word, introduction, or description of the process. It is neat to see the animators doing their thing, but that is the only thing this has going for it.

Animation Line Tests (02:23 SD): Here is another weak example of how the animation process works. It demonstrates some transparent line drawings being placed over the backdrops to test the positioning. This time, they couldn’t even find the time to place music over the images. Even though it’s a neat process, it feels like something that should’ve been covered in a longer, more informative ‘making of’ feature.

Before and After Animation Sequences (08:46 HD): Though it is in HD, it’s obvious the “After” footage used is not from the mastered Blu-ray image. This feature includes more examples of the animation at various stages, including some side-by-side comparisons of the original sketches next to their placement in the movie. Once again, this is just a series of clips with no information or insight given.

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The Illusionist is a delightful film that pays loving tribute to Jacques Tati. It has wonderful animation, masterful yet subtle storytelling, and surprisingly complex emotions lingered with me long after the film ended. Despite a disappointing lack of features, this Blu-ray packs a stunning 1080p transfer, accompanied by rich immersive audio. If the lack of special features isn’t a huge turnoff, I highly recommend this release to fans of Jacques Tati, animation, and anyone with the slightest curiosity.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.