Brit critics flip for ‘The Illusionist’

Posted by · 7:25 am · August 23rd, 2010

Yeah, yeah, everybody loves “Toy Story 3.” Enchanting, amusing, heartbreaking… all those swell things. We hear it every year: Pixar shames every other Hollywood studio, transcends the limits of animation, etc, etc. Pencil in a second consecutive Best Picture nomination, and stick a fork in the Best Animated Feature race — for the fourth year running.

Except it shouldn’t be that easy. Pixar may have expertly capped a beloved film franchise, but they haven’t made the best animated film of the year. That title, bar a late-year surprise, goes to Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist,” which knocked me out at the Berlinale in February and thoroughly sustained the magic on a second viewing this weekend.

It occurred to me that the visually rapturous film, a beyond-the-grave collaboration with French comic master Jacques Tati, would form a neat (if very moist-eyed) double feature with the Pixar juggernaut: both take a melancholic approach to themes of growing up and letting go, but it’s the Chomet film I found more searching and soulful.

Though it will almost certainly maintain the upper hand in the awards race, in terms of critical regard, “Toy Story 3” faces feisty competition from “The Illusionist” — if the ecstatic reception that greeted the latter upon its UK release last Friday is any indication. Leading the parade of five-star reviews in leading British publications, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw ventured that the film “will be admired and loved as much as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was 10 years ago,” continuing:

Simply being an animation, and an old-style animation, is a great effect. The Illusionist is like a seance that brings to life scenes from the 1950s with eerie directness, in a way that glitzy digital animation or live-action period location work could somehow never do. Something in the unassuming simplicity of the composition allows the viewer to engage directly with the world being conjured up … The Illusionist is an intricate jewel.

The Telegraph’s Tim Robey offers another perfect score, calling the film “a miraculous gem from a master animator”:

Tati, it’s said, thought his own screenplay too personal and sad to be produced in his lifetime. There’s no more dexterous set of hands it could possibly have fallen into … Chomet’s vision of [Edinburgh], all dancing light and forlornly beckoning shopfronts, is an exquisite valentine. A lonely and ultimately broken-hearted one. For finding the enchantment in melancholy, and vice versa, this very special film goes straight to the top of the year’s must-sees.

Joining the five-star club, and declaring Chomet the equal of Miyazaki and Lasseter, Time Out’s David Jenkins expands on the fusion of the director’s sensibility with that of Tati:

Purists may moan that there is too much of a defined story for this to be a ‘genuine’ Tati article, but that’s only because Chomet puts his own eccentric stamp on it. Tati thought anything could be funny, and while Chomet runs with that idea as a director, he challenges it as a storyteller. ‘The Illusionist’ presents a cruel world in flux, a place where people grow old and drift apart and loneliness and failure lead to tragedy.

There are more glowing reviews out there, including ones from the New Statesman’s Ryan Gilbey and the Independent’s Anthony Quinn, but you get the idea by now: people really, really like this film. The US critics’ welcome is bound to be similarly warm when Sony Pictures Classics strategically releases the film Stateside in November; I also expect it to trump “Toy Story 3” at some of the more highbrow critics’ awards.

As was the case with Chomet’s first feature, “The Triplets of Belleville” (for which Sony employed an identical release strategy), peer admiration and critical adulation will secure “The Illusionist” a Best Animated Feature nomination when Oscar time rolls around — particularly if, as seems likely, the category again houses five nominees this year.

Still, with a title this special, it would be nice to see Sony push for more. It would be a stretch to imagine voters making room for this bijou piece in the top race even if Pixar didn’t already have the token animation slot covered. Lower down the list, however, attention from the music branch would be warranted, while Best Original Screenplay recognition — which would entail a posthumous nod for Tati — is quite conceivable: a rare opportunity for the Academy to make a sentimental gesture that is also artistically justified. I hope someone is on the case.


→ 31 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

31 responses so far

  • 1 8-23-2010 at 8:04 am

    Jim T said...

    I love it when someone supports a film he/she adores but you don’t have to beat Toy Story 3 every time you mention The Illusionist. It’s like you’re saying that loving Pixar is wrong and that people should admit its films are overrated. That some people might attack you for not loving Pixar (or love it as much as they do) is beside the point.

    I mean, what if I end up liking The Illusionist less than TS3? I’ll feel like I just don’t “get” more original work or something. By the way, I don’t love TS3 but I like it a lot. And I thought Up was mediocre.

    But really, I can’t wait to see The Illusionist.

  • 2 8-23-2010 at 8:21 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    You’re taking an opinion piece a little too much to heart, Jim — I sometimes think it superfluous to preface every evaluative statement with “I think” or “in my opinion,” though it goes without saying that I’m not presenting these statements as incontrovertible fact. No film, or viewer, is getting “beaten.” As I said, I think “Toy Story 3” is a pretty exemplary piece of work, but I feel a lot of people are prematurely handing it awards on a plate when there deserves to be more discussion.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting the “loving Pixar is wrong” idea from — “WALL-E” was in my 2008 Top 10, after all — and I should add that this is only the first time I’ve discussed “Toy Story 3” and “The Illusionist” together. I think they belong in a conversation together; for me, they have rather more in common than just their medium.

  • 3 8-23-2010 at 8:36 am

    Jim T said...

    I thought I remembered you had made a comparison before. If you’re sure you haven’t, I apologize.

    Re: your opinion on TS3, I couldn’t tell whether you were sarcastic or not but I was certain you thought it’s overrated.

    Any way, it just seems to me like you believe people who love Pixar (and I mean almost every film) are blind to its weaknesses, willfully or not.

  • 4 8-23-2010 at 9:15 am

    Tom said...

    I would LOVE it if The Illusionist beat Toy Story 3 for the Oscar. I really enjoyed TS3, but I’m gonna hazard a guess and say that I’ll prefer The Illusionist. In addition, there are already a handful of great animated films that were robbed by the Pixar Oscar giant, among them Howl’s Moving Castle and The Triplets of Belleville, not to mention movies that didn’t even get nominated, such as A Scanner Darkly and Mary and Max.

  • 5 8-23-2010 at 9:16 am

    DarkLayers said...

    I think one theme that emerges from this post is how animation is really a medium for great works of art in this day and age.

  • 6 8-23-2010 at 9:24 am

    forts said...

    Hey look, another post on incontention that knocks Pixar. The reason why it’s so easy to just give Pixar our predictions for Best Animated Feature this early is because it’s gonna take something truly special to beat it which I don’t think the “The Illusionist” has. It’s gonna take a film that needs to be seen by alot of people to beat the admiration given to the Toy Story franchise. “The Triplets of Belleville” was wonderful but it was going against the top grossing animated film at that point which also received nearly universal praise… A situation that seems to be happening again this year. So I’m gonna stick with Toy Story 3 for my pick and I think it’s foolish to have anything else.

  • 7 8-23-2010 at 9:30 am

    Estefan said...

    “I think one theme that emerges from this post is how animation is really a medium for great works of art in this day and age.”
    Not just in this day and age. Since the 1920s, it’s been a fantastic artform.

    It says a lot that over 80 years later, Steamboat Willie is still an excellent piece of work and a must-see for any filmbuff.

    Not to mention the work of Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks and the Flesicher Brothers.

    Really looking forward to The Illusionist, but I have a feeling that I will have to wait for Blu-Ray. :-(

  • 8 8-23-2010 at 9:35 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Forts: I’m not talking about predictions — it goes without saying that “Toy Story 3” is the frontrunner by a country mile. And there have been ample posts on this site in praise of Pixar — including “Toy Story 3.”

  • 9 8-23-2010 at 9:36 am

    Fitz said...

    As much as I loved Toy Story 3, I certainly see where it could be overtaken in Best Animated Feature race. The story is a tad redundant after the first two films.

  • 10 8-23-2010 at 9:37 am

    Joseph said...

    Excellent. I can’t wait to see this one.

  • 11 8-23-2010 at 9:41 am

    red_wine said...

    I think just like like last year, when we had two animated films (Fox and Up) in the most critically acclaimed Top 10 films of the year, we might see a repeat with The Illusionist and Toy Story 3. But last year, Fox beat out Up in terms of critics’ graces, registering higher in all critics polls and also winning LA/NY. Some years ago, Belleville had also claimed the LA/NY crown beating out Nemo, a film I’m admittedly not fond of. But I definitely preferred Up to Fox.

    This year we might again see the hallowed Pixar production trumped by Illusionist in terms of critical acclaim as the year rolls by. I have heard more than a few reviews mention ‘masterpiece’ though the word has often been used in relation to TS3 too.

    Definitely looking forward to it though I must shamefully admit that I haven’t seen Belleville yet. I shall remedy this wrong soon.

  • 12 8-23-2010 at 9:46 am

    Tye-Grr said...

    It would be amazing if both ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘The Illusionist’ made it in to the Best Picture lineup. Not only would it shake up that category, but it would make the Best Animated Feature race much less predictable. Especially if they both garnered screenplay noms too, that would be awesome.

  • 13 8-23-2010 at 9:53 am

    red_wine said...

    With regards to the Oscar race, Animated Feature is a done deal, it was over the day TS3 was released. There is nothing that can prevent Pixar from winning. Frankly it would be foolish for other animated films to spend money on even a single print ad, much less run a campaign.

    The Best Picture race meanwhile awaits a live-action film to take away the ‘pseudo-frontrunner’ crown from TS3.

    Guy, Chomet definitely made some changes to Tati’s script. Wouldn’t that make it adapted?

  • 14 8-23-2010 at 10:05 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Well, the Academy is notorious for its peculiar classifications in this area, so I’m making no definite calls. But as far as I’m concerned, the script is an original collaboration, not an adaptation — Tati is credited as a writer, not as source material. (By that logic, any original script that goes through multiple redrafts by different writers — say, “Gladiator” — should be declared an adaptation, which would be ludicrous.)

  • 15 8-23-2010 at 10:54 am

    Adam Keller said...

    Well, Before Sunset was adapted… which was ludicrous.

    Toy Story 3 will win. No contest. Partially because there are so many quality films in the category this year, and Toy Story 3 will be the one to stand out because of the money. Why has everyone stopped talking about How To Train Your Dragon now? Because Despicable Me made even more money (on a much smaller budget) and also got good reviews (though Dragon was all the rage a few months ago). So add in Illusionist and you’ve got 4 seemingly “sure things” right there. But only one of them has the distinction of being both:

    1) the top money earner of the year, and
    2) the highest grossing animated film EVER

    Throw in sentiment for the Toy Story series as a whole, which has never been able to win an oscar before, and the win is assured. And since all these great films are of comparable quality, I’m fine with that. It’s just a fact of life that the most mainstream, universally liked title will win.

  • 16 8-23-2010 at 11:04 am

    MovieMan said...

    If it comes close to touching “Spirited Away,” we’re in for a treat, because that film is better than Pixar has ever been.

  • 17 8-23-2010 at 2:58 pm

    Estefan said...

    “Throw in sentiment for the Toy Story series as a whole, which has never been able to win an oscar before”
    The first Toy Story was honoured with a Special Achievement Award at the Oscars.

    FYI, I think we do indeed have four of the animated features locked up. Expect Tangled to take the fifth spot.

    Of course, there’s no reason MegaMind couldn’t turn out to be great or a “Secret of Kells”-type surprise pops up, taking the place of Despicable Me spot, much like that film took the nomination everybody thought that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs had locked up.

  • 18 8-23-2010 at 3:51 pm

    Renard said...

    I believe that “TOY STORY 3” will almost definitely win BEST ANIMATED FILM.
    However, I think that “TS3” also has, of the year so far, the STRONGEST CHANCES of WINNING BEST PICTURE!!!

  • 19 8-23-2010 at 6:15 pm

    Glenn said...

    “The Illusionist” truly is something special. “Toy Story 3” is also something special. Can’t we just accept that there can be two truly special animated films in a year? One being better than the other is besides the point when the two most heartbreaking moments of cinema for the year are there to be witnessed.

    THE BUNNY!!!!! Oh gawd, I’m gonna cry…

  • 20 8-23-2010 at 8:48 pm

    Leone said...

    Thanks for the piece, Guy. I think this year has been a good one for animated film, an art form that I only recently learned to appreciate. I haven’t seen THE ILLUSIONIST yet, but very much look forward to it, but having seen TOY STORY 3 and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, I wonder if folks might not be underestimating the sheer beauty of the latter and it’s very meaningful story. It’s one of the best screenplays of the year, a moving score, and absolutely beautiful 3D images, and a 98% rotten tomatoes score, and I personally haven’t met a single person that didn’t love it. I think the dragon might just be the sleeper of the season.

  • 21 8-23-2010 at 10:35 pm

    GG said...

    TS3 is going to wind up being the biggest movie of the year and likely the best-reviewed. Illusionist, as much as I’m looking forward to it and as great as it may be, seriously has its work cut out for it. At this point I think it’s in the same position Fantastic Mr. Fox was (damm great movie, btw).

    I do think we have 3 locks for animated noms (these two and Dragon).

  • 22 8-24-2010 at 11:45 am

    tintin said...

    Toy Story will win best animated featured. THE END.

  • 23 8-24-2010 at 5:11 pm

    madiezga said...

    howl’s moving castle wasn’t robbed by any pixar film, it was robbed by wallace and gromit.

  • 24 8-24-2010 at 7:03 pm

    mikhael said...

    toy story got what it all takes to win: highest review, Pixar name, and the title as the highest grossing animated/film of 2010. but how to train your dragon was a sleeper hit in terms of box office receipt, so maybe it could be the sleeper hit at oscar next year and a major threat to TS3. and the illusionist could be this year’s mr fox. so the question is can the oscar voter choose the one with the greatest quality over studio name and popularity? because if it’s true that this film is anywhere near Spirited Away, well then TS3 is already shut out.

  • 25 8-25-2010 at 9:00 am

    Red 5 said...

    Get real, The Illusionist charted in 15th place behind Disney’s third tear Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue this weekend. Do you really think the academy would deny Toy Story 3 that this week retained third place having previously topped the chart for four weeks for The Illusionist that has had mixed reviews away from the snob journalism that the name of Tati produces.

    Ponyo, How to Train your Dragon, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me and probably Tangled all deserve a nomination for best animation at the 2011 Oscars. The first four are all glorious examples of the animated motion picture. The Illusionist has to fight its way in and if it is nominated at all it will be as much a token gesture that pays respect to a cinema great and a bygone way of making animation as anything. Having seen it over the weekend The Illusionist is a poorly told dour movie that fails capture the innocent joys of humanity in the same way that the brilliant gentle humour of Tati did. The Illusionist is not genuine award material and although in ways more sophisticated than Chomets former outing it lacks the visual quirkiness that Triplets had. It is no way as good as Spirited Away.

    As for original screen play, who would the academy actually award that too given that the direct decedents of Tati have disputed Chomets take on the script as disingenuous?

  • 26 8-25-2010 at 9:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red: “Ponyo” was eligible for last year’s Academy Awards, so I’m afraid it missed its shot. As for your screenplay question, the Academy would nominate Tati and Chomet jointly — both are credited on the film. Original scripts are rejiggered all the time; what Tati’s family thinks is a non-issue.

  • 27 8-25-2010 at 9:44 am

    Red 5 said...

    Guy do you really think a movie that could not beat Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue at putting bum’s on seats really has any chance of Oscar success? You can’t deny the influence of the paying public. The Illusionist flopped heavily in France where it also gained mixed reviews. It would be just as easy to selectively pluck negative reviews for the Illusionist from the press who in general say the movie does not connect on an emotional level although begging for a response from the very first scene.

    Guy you might as well push for The Sorcerers Apprentice staking claim on best movie, it’s just as nonsensical.

  • 28 8-25-2010 at 10:32 am

    Red 5 said...

    Nigel Andrews FT

    “I wish The Illusionist were funny, but it isn’t”.

    “A film whose too-manifest agenda, at the outset, is to break our hearts causes a sceptical spectator to apply sealant to that organ from Scene 1”.

    Alistair Harkness The Scotsman

    “Sadly all their work is in the service of an unappealing story that recycles the old “tears of a clown” cliché and expects us to mourn the passing of things that probably weren’t that great to begin with”.

    “The film clearly wants us to feel something akin to profound sadness about the magician’s plight, but once you strip away the wow factor of the film’s design, the absence of strong characterisation ensures the end result is less affecting than was perhaps intended”.

  • 29 8-25-2010 at 10:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Guy do you really think a movie that could not beat Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue at putting bum’s on seats really has any chance of Oscar success?”

    I’m talking about a nomination, not a win. And you only need look at that surprise nod for “The Secret of Kells” to be reminded that the animators’ branch isn’t all about box-office receipts.

  • 30 8-25-2010 at 11:45 am

    Clayton said...

    As much as I would like this film to be the 2010 equivalent of Persepolis to Pixar’s Ratatouille (not that I necessarily consider TS3 to be on par with the Bird film), based on a number of the reviews I’ve glanced over, it doesn’t look all that promising. Might still get an Animated Feature nom, but I’m keeping my expectations in check on this one.

  • 31 8-28-2010 at 10:24 am

    Me. said...

    “The Triplets of Belleville” was much better than “Finding Nemo”. I can’t wait for “The Illusionist”!