I find myself biased against animated films, generally. This isn't that they aren't good films. There have been some really great animated movies in the last ten years. This year, I really liked Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, for example, and last year I was a big fan of The Princess and the Frog. I like animated movies, in other words, and I see most of the ones that get good reviews.
They almost never, however, rank very high on my end-of-year film rankings. For a while I have wondered why this is, and I have been given a bit of grief over it before -- this was probably around the time of Les Triplettes de Belleville and Finding Nemo. But I think that my anti-animation bias is mostly due to the subject matter of many animated films. Of course there is Miyazaki, and I love John Lasseter, but even when these films are not about children per se, they frequently feel geared toward children.
All of this rambling is a preface to me telling you that I adored Sylvain Chomet's L'Illusionniste. Absolutely adored. And I didn't feel this way about Les Triplettes; L'Illusionniste is a whole other kettle of fish.
The first thing to say about this movie is that it is a Jacques Tati film. That fact, to me, already makes the film a must-see. If you have loved Tati's films in the past you cannot miss L'Illusionniste. Chomet has adapted a Tati script from the mid-1950s that had never been filmed by Tati himself. The adaptation is lovely! The main character is a down-on-his-luck magician named Tatischeff (Tati's own given name) and though he is an animated character, he possesses the unique gangliness, awkward gait, and seeming obliviousness that easily identified Tati's Monsieur Hulot. In other words the film's star is immediately recognizable and lovable on the instant.
But L'Illusionniste is also a Sylvain Chomet film. It is a comical movie, but it is also deeply sad. Chomet's balance of these two is flat-out masterful. The film manages to juggle a persistent nostalgia (the film's star is, after all a beloved icon who has been deceased many years) and a delightful, often breathtaking sense of whimsy with a rather sad plot about a man with outdated skills looking for work in an unkind economy. This is also a movie about regret: a kind of love-letter to or hopeful vision of a more generous mode of parenthood.
For L'Illusionniste is, at heart, a film about parenting; it is not, however, a film about children.
It's also a film about being poor, about how much things cost, and about how children don't understand the sacrifices parents make.
And it is also a movie about magic: illusions, sure, but also noticing the magic around us all the time. Parenting is itself magical in this movie, and Chomet asks us to see the labor our parents do to support us, the worry they expend for our safety, the dreams they give up to nurture our dreams, as quiet, unacknowledged miracles, little bits of magic that grace our lives every day.
L'Illusionniste displays Chomet's characteristic style. Some of the characters are intentionally (if rather beautifully) grotesque, and there is less dialogue than in a silent film.
Instead of dialogue the movie is filled with powerful standalone images, beautifully choreographed farcical sequences, and delightful non sequiturs; these accumulate to form a whole that is emotionally arresting and whimsically transportive. It is easily one of the best films of the year.