It is rare when life gives you a second chance, but this week I received just that when I was scanning the schedule for the Siskel Film Center and noticed that The Illusionist was playing there this week, after finishing its run in more mainstream theaters ages ago, shortly after it gained attention for its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. Having enjoyed The Triplets of Belleville, the previous film directed by Sylbain Chomet, I had planned to see his latest work with Justin, but when the night in question rolled around, we were both too tired to drag ourselves to the theater. We resigned ourselves to renting it at a later date, but fate intervened and gave us another chance to catch it on the big screen tonight.
The Illusionist tells the tale of an aging magician whose work is increasingly less relevant in a culture captivated by the advent of rock music and more flashy forms of entertainment. He moves through Europe trying to scrape together a living through a series of increasingly demeaning performance opportunities, before he finds success for a time in a remote Scottish village where his talents are still considered novel. There, he meets a young girl who believes he has real supernatural powers, and she runs away from home to follow him into what she believes will be a charmed, more exotic existence. Tatischeff, the magician, takes her under his wing as he would a daughter, and lavishes her with expensive gifts, secretly working a series of degrading odd jobs to support the girl in her new lifestyle.
I won't tell you how it ends, but I was warned in advance by Katherine, who saw the movie when it was in theaters the first time around, that I should prepare myself to be depressed. She was not mistaken. Unlike The Triplets of Belleville, which was a zany, exuberant romp, The Illusionist has the same heart-wrenching effect as reading your way through The Giving Tree (a children's book surpassed in its power to sadden only by I Love You Forever.) Tatischeff gives until he has nothing left to give, and the movie takes our dreams (as well as the girl's) and stomps all over them. The ending isn't totally without hope, but it is also profoundly sad.
I don't mind a bit of emotional devastation from time to time, but most people don't, so I'm not sure I can recommend this movie. Stylistically and aesthetically, it is very much in keeping with The Triplets of Belleville, so if you would like to appreciate some gorgeous, hand-drawn animation (itself a dying art in this day and age) with European flair, I think I'd recommend renting a copy of that instead.