"L'illusonniste" - 2010
Dir. by Sylvain Chomet - 1 hr. 20 min.
Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, this is a heartbreakingly beautiful animated feature. It's always much harder to praise something than to see when things are done wrong, but I'll do my best here. Aside from the story (a magician who's career is on the skids, circa 1959, has a teenage girl start tagging along with him), which isn't really the thrust of movie, nearly everything is perfect. The animation has a distinct look - which is to say that it's distinctly non-American. There is surely some computer work done here (animating vehicles from multiple angles is the main culprit, I'd imagine), but the animators still manage to maintain a hand-drawn, linear surface polish. There's no pixels to be found anywhere, not in the linework, nor in the colors, which has a watercolor look. And make no mistake, the animation has to carry the film - there's nearly no dialogue whatsoever, nor are there any subtitles when the characters do happen to say something (it's intentionally mumbled, although you can still make out some things here and there).
Another heap of praise for the animation: each city that is in the movie feels distinctly real, and distinct from one another. Most of the movie is set in Edinburgh, a city I've been to, and this film absolutely nails it. There is also a coastal Scotland town that feels exactly right, and is distinct from Edinburgh. It's a rare feat in an animated film to have a real sense of place. Also, the characters are sufficiently cartoony (read: exaggerated, in a really pleasing sense) so as not to suggest rotoscoping or motion-capture, which always grates on my eyes.
And while it's easy to praise the technical and performance aspects of this film, the emotion behind it really latches on and won't let go. It's one thing to have an entertainer on the skids, but watching him try to keep up appearances for the sake of his young friend (all while watching his contemporaries failing, as well) and keep his dignity at the same time is rending. It doesn't get easier from there - it's difficult to watch someone have their dreams get crushed, but seeing people who are unquestionably good at what they do have even surviving (in some cases) slip just out of reach is a gut punch. It doesn't get easier from there, either.
Basically, this is "Up" in reverse. Instead of starting with a crushing sequence and rebuilding from there, "L'illusionniste" is a downhill ride that will kick your ass, roll credits, and leave you in the theatre hoping no one sees you wipe the tears from your eyes as the lights go up. But it's a beautiful ride, unlike anything I've seen in quite a while, too.
5 / 5 - Theatre