Imitation of Life

A journal about film, music, literature and any other form of imitation of life. Seeing through a glass darkly…

A leap of faith or why The Illusionist is a better film than Toy Story 3

In religion, a revelation is commonly understood as an act of disclosure or communication from a higher, divine force. Depending on its significance and momentousness, it can trigger a change in one’s beliefs or, more simply, a conversion. For a non-believer, however, a revelation can only be ascribed to a deceptive perception leading to a false impression of reality – in other words, to an illusion.

Until very recently I was a resilient cartoon atheist, an agnostic of the non-live action image. With the notable exception of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces I have always remained curiously untouched by the beguiling pleasures animation feature films seem to provide to most people around me, children and adults alike. Although it is as enjoyable and worthy genre as any other, I believe it needs certain qualities and a very specific pace and mood to sustain the viewer’s attention for more than an hour.

That’s why I have been procrastinating the inescapable duty of watching Pixar’s Toy Story 3, a film that has been hailed by many as the best motion picture of the year. Admittedly, I am always biased against an animation film when I sit down to see it, and TS3 was no exception, not least because any title with a number higher than 2 gives me the creeps unless the film has been directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Nevertheless, I obediently fulfilled my duty and I can state that TS3 can claim my unrestrained admiration for its technical perfection, its superb writing and its faultless craftsmanship. But was it a revelation? Was I converted? Not really, hélàs. I still was, I thought, painfully impervious to the magic of the animation world.

And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the ghost of a genius literally came back from the dead to conjure up the miracle of the conversion thanks to 80 minutes of sheer illusion.

Jacques Tati (1907-1982), one of the greatest comedic filmmakers of all time, wrote the script for The Illusionist at the end of the fifties, just before filming Mon Oncle (1958). He set the story in Czechoslovakia and supposedly dedicated it to his daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne, whom he had abandoned when she was a baby. The script remained unproduced for five decades, partly because Marie, Tati’s other daughter, was wary of the idea of any actor impersonating her father’s unmistakable persona. In 2003 French director Sylvain Chomet, who had received an Oscar nomination for his previous film Les Triplettes de Belleville, was passed the script by the caretakers of Tati’s work and followed Marie’s old idea of turning it into an animation movie, relocating the story to Scotland.

Where does the difference between The Illusionist and TS3 lie? Which element of the former convinced me to take this leap of faith?

Both TS3 and The Illusionist are remarkable films on its own merits, independently of their attachment to the animation genre. Radically different in their surface (lavish and aseptic in Toy Story 3, delicate and affectionate in The Illusionist), both films share a central thematic thread: they are both the story of a disillusion.

The plot in TS3 revolves around Andy’s imminent departure to college and the uncertain consequences this crucial moment in any young adult’s life has for the future of his toys. In that sense, TS3 can be compared as much with Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid as an animation motion picture as with, let’s say, Lone Scherfig’s An Education or, given the film’s surprising cruelty, Frank Perry’s Last Summer as a coming-of-age film. The disillusion in The Illusionist comes, paradoxically, from the character’s disenchantment with his own profession and, as a result of it, with a very particular way of seeing and understanding life.

The form which each of these films adopts to convey their subject-matter responds to different creative (and maybe commercial) aspirations. Pixar Animation Studios have been pioneers in digital animation and each new film is an opportunity to break new ground in the use of new technologies for animation. The film deliberately insists on the ‘featurelessness’ not only of the human characters, but also of the suburban landscape in which the story takes place, presumably in an attempt to concentrate their creative effort in the toy characters, each of them unique and deliciously memorable. The Illusionist, conversely, is a classic hand-drawn animation that brings back to life with meticulous accuracy the unmistakable gestures and demeanour of Jacques Tati, as we remember him from his great classic films, but relinquishes the same preciseness when depicting the rest of the characters (at one point of the film, a group of identical vaudeville dancers swarm out of a dressing room). Chomet turns back to punctiliousness only in the vivid portrayal of Edinburgh, the city in which the second (and best) part of the film takes place.

Both films embody a diametrically opposed concept of pace which, in both cases, is put forward from the outset. It is the new age rollercoaster as opposed to the museum piece merry-go-round. The prologue in TS3 sets the furiously-paced tone that will reign during the next 90 minutes of a feature that at times is an action film above anything else. The familiar characters from the previous two films are brought back to us in a terrific Western train chase scene that takes place, as we learn only 10 minutes into the film, in Andy’s imaginative mind. The Illusionist, on the other hand, takes its time in introducing the characters and the action, so careful in the observance of detail that it will certainly put off the impatient viewer. The difference in pace is also reflected in the dialogue, loquacious and exuberant in TS3, virtually absent in The Illusionist, a semi-silent film where the few written lines are mumbled rather than spoken. (Text continues after clip)

One of the few criticisms one can make with respect to TS3 lies in the film’s inability to transcend its own commercial self-consciousness. The film tries in vain to stage its own reality through the use of external references which can be easily identified by the viewer. The use of real commercial brands as common external references to both the viewer’s and the film’s inner reality may have worked in the first instalment of the series, but it isn’t valid anymore because to the contemporary viewer, especially the younger one, at whom the film is primarily aimed (for commercial purposes), Buzz Lightyear and Woody are as recognisable household names as Barbie or Ken. The inability to transcend that level, one might argue, may come not from the evolution of the Toy Story series but from Pixar’s conscious decision to exploit the fantastic merchandising vehicle the film itself represents.

That is not, however, the inconvenient flaw that prevents TS3 from being a perfect cinematic experience. What with the brilliant idea translated into a flawless script, the memorable character creation, the moments of candid hilarity (Buzz Lightyear’s Spanish mode is a standout) and, above all, the arresting technical perfection, there is a crucial element missing in TS3 that The Illusionist has plenty to spare: the trace of human endeavour. (Text continues after clip)

That lack of human vestige, used in this case as truthfulness or straightforwardness towards the viewer, has fatal consequences for the narrative choices of the adult film that TS3 aspires, and nearly manages, to be. When, at the end of TS3, Andy gives his toys to their new owner, the adorable little girl next door, that legacy is transformed in a final act of catharsis for Andy and of salvation for the toys. The Hollywood Happy Ending is out there in all its cruelty because we know it’s phoney and insincere. The Hollywood Happy Ending has often been compared (among others by the great Douglas Sirk) to the Deus ex machina of the Greek tragedy. Although they try to make us believe something else, we know there is no hope for Buzz, Woody and their friends because the little girl will get tired of them or, at the very best, will have to go to college herself in some years time. The happy ending is an easy, deceitful trick to an audience that prefers to turn a blind eye to the true message of the film: the inexorable passing of time and its devastating consequences. The end of The Illusionisthe  is explicitly heartbreaking, and yet more honest and ultimately hopeful, not only for the girl and her new lover, but also for a character, the illusionist, that has finally come to terms with the lie of his existence of make-believe and will therefore (maybe rather later than sooner) be able to start a new life.

The last 40 minutes of The Illusionist are memorable, maybe the best I’ve seen in a film in a long time thanks, among other things, to the hilarious silent scene in the garage, so reminiscent of the great comic moments of Tati’s classic films or the marvellous recreation of Edinburgh, forever in debt with this film. However, some films are etched in the memory of the viewer on account of a scene in which all the elements of a film add up to create that rare instant of the cinematic miracle. There is such a scene in The Illusionist. When, towards the end of the film, the disillusioned conjuror walks past a film theatre, we can see a poster of Mon Oncle. What at first looks simply like Chomet’s tribute to Tati turns into a memorable moment when the illusionist walks into the dark theatre and stands in front of a screen showing real footage of Tati’s masterpiece. As a mirror shows us not like we are, but our own opposite, the screen shows the illusionist (and the viewer) a nearly identical but different reflection of himself because the miracle of this film is that we never quite forget Monsieur Hulot, but we learn to love The Illusionist.

I doubt that this experience, this revelation will change my attitude towards animation films. As far as cinema is concerned, the live action feature film will always be my religion, but in thou, Jacques Tati, I do believe.


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