The Illusionist: Beautiful Animation but is it Faithful to Tati?

The Illusionist: Beautiful Animation but is it Faithful to Tati?

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.

4 Comments Isabelle Duarte

Posted by
Isabelle Duarte
Mon 21 Nov 2011: 2:49pm

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  • William de Coverly:

    I saw this film at the cinema last year. I too had mixed feelings about it for various reasons and was also surprised at the lack of humour - something I had been expecting more of. However, it was visually stunning and the ending too left me holding back the tears and stepping back out in the British sunshine feeling somewhat nostalgic and moved.

  • Martyn Drake:

    Yes! I love Tati, and I love Chomet.

    The French make the best films (seriously - I absolutely adore My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle about the younger years of Marcel Pagnol's life and consequently I love Jean De Florette and Manon Des Sources) and if it's French, I'm very likely to be watching it (providing it has English subtitles for alas my language skills are decidedly lacking).

    I think it was Tati that really got me hooked on the French approach to storytelling. His Traffic was the first film of his I saw. Mon Oncle followed and Monsieur Hulot's Holiday after that. All brilliant.

    I already loved Belleville Rendevouz as soon as I heard the music in the trailer and went out my way to see it in the cinema and buy the DVD (and I also own the soundtrack). Chomet is a wonderfully talented artist and what he did with Rendevouz was remarkable.

    Then I saw the Illusionist and I certainly recognised the character of Tatischeff. Despite the controversy over the story's origin and what it's actually about (some say it's about Tati's relationship with the daughter he abandoned) I still very much enjoyed it.

    Is it really Tati in there? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Definitely recognisable traits, but overall I loved this film - it's animation, it's music (again - I have the soundtrack it's incredible) and the storyline. As with Belleville, barely any dialogue. All visual. Wonderful.

    And I'll admit right now I cried like mad at the end. Job done.

  • miles pettit:

    Hi Isabelle,

    I have spoken to Alex about this film in the past. If my memory serves me well [which it often doesn't] he was offered to work on this film as an animator.

    Personally I love this film and it's style.

  • Jean-Marc Rulier:

    Tati fan here too since I was 13...

    Thinking about it,I have to check if Hulot has a pipe in “The Illusionist”...

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