In a film world where CG (and, alas, 3D) animation is king, something as eloquently simple as The Illusionist, the 2D hand-drawn animated feature by acclaimed French director Sylvain Chomet, is an oddity and a beauty. And much like the magician of its title, The Illusionist is a rare - if not dying - breed.
Finding it harder and harder to attract a local audience, the titular magician and his bite-happy rabbit cross the Channel from France to England in the hopes of securing regular engagements. One night stands in once beautiful music halls, as a follow-up act to foppy British pop groups, and the occasional garden party ensue. It's while at a latter such event that his services are engaged by a drunken Scotsman.
And it's while performing in a modest hotel in the Scottish countryside that the Illusionist attracts the attention of Alice, the hotel's young maid. Alice decides to follow the older man when he departs for Edinburgh, and the two (three if you include the rabbit) set up house in a room in the run down Hotel Joe, where she gets the bedroom and he takes the couch (there's no funny business in this May-December relationship).
The Hotel Joe is populated by performers who, like the Illusionist, have found themselves increasingly abandoned by the audience. A trio of acrobats, a ventriloquist, and a clown reduced to alcoholism and thoughts of suicide, all do their best to make due. And when his and Alice's financial situation becomes tight, the Illusionist has to seek part-time employment away from the stage.
But somehow this pecuniary pickle remains oblivious to Alice. The young lass seemingly unaware that a hotel room and her new wardrobe costs more than a struggling magician can make, on or off the stage. And it's at this point where Chomet's film takes on a rather melancholic tone.
Adapted by Chomet (best known for 2003's The Triplets of Belleville) from an un-produced screenplay by acclaimed French comic filmmaker, Jacques Tati, The Illusionist bears the unmistakeable fingerprints of its original author. Echoing Tati's most famous film, Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953), all of the dialogue in the film is spoken in a muffle so as to be almost silent (parents wishing to take children should not be deterred by the film's French origins: there are no subtitles to read).
And the Illusionist himself (at one time referred to by the Hotel clerk as Mr. Tati) has the comic physicality of his author, barely-above-bumbling through social situations; an attempt to hide behind a coat rack to avoid meeting Alice on the street sees him stumble into a cinema playing - what else? - a Tati film.
Screening at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, The Illusionist has taken its time in securing a general cinema release in Australia. And that release is limited, so you'd be best advised to catch this small gem before it disappears.