I love Sunday. It’s my favourite day of the week: a day when I can 'veg out' and watch all the stuff on TV I don’t normally have time for. Yesterday, I settled down to watch a feature animation which had been on my ‘To Watch’ list for some time. It’s called “The Illusionist” and is a Franco-British collaboration, directed by Sylvain Chomet.
It was released last year, but didn’t do very well. It cost $17 million to make but only took $5.6 million at the box office. I can hear your incredulity from here… “Why on earth were you watching it if it was a flop”? Well, partly because I think that commercial success is not always (in fact, not often) the mark of a great movie, and secondly because that’s how I have discovered some of my favourite films. OK, if I am honest with you, there was another reason… This film was based on a script written by Jacques Tati, who I am rather fond of. Now, before I go on any further, I am not just fond of Tati because he was French, but because I think he was a genius of comedy. His style was unique, and to me, he was mostly funny but also charming and endearing. His films evoke very fond memories for me – I often wish that the end of his professional life hadn’t been such a sad story.
But back to the subject at hand: The Illusionist. I’ll be honest with you; I have mixed feelings about it. The animation in itself is breathtakingly beautiful – and for that alone, you should watch it. No one can fail to be enchanted by it. It captures a certain era of show biz and variety shows very well, and it makes Edinburgh look amazing. My mixed feelings come from the fact that with it being based on a Jacques Tati script, I expected the film to be funny – and that’s where the film fails. It is beautiful and poignant, but it is mostly sad.
Some believe that the story is actually a personal letter to Jacques Tati’s estranged daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel whom he abandoned as baby, but is basically a look at father-daughter relationships. Others, including the director himself believe that it was a letter to his other daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and Sylvain Chomet reportedly said “I think he felt guilty that he spent too long away from his daughter when he was working."
Tati had intended it to be a film rather than an animation, but I read that Sophie Tatischeff didn’t want the part of his father to be played by an actor and so decided an animation would be more fitting. However it came about, I am still convinced that the animation itself is not at fault here, but I think the choice of just including some indistinguishable mumbles for the dialogue destroyed any opportunity it had to make it funny. Having said all that, I have no way of knowing whether or not Tati himself intended for it to be funny.
So, my verdict is this: it is a ‘must watch’ because the animation work is incredibly beautiful, but I am afraid this is not a ‘feel good’ film and it will leave you feeling quite melancholic.
I am off to speak to our 'resident expert' - Alex Williams, our Character Animation tutor - about how the whole film and the animation itself might have been executed differently to deliver a much happier film.