By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 28, 2010 at 5:31AM
Which animated film will land the third Oscar slot behind Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon? The critics have given a serious boost Sylvain Chomet's elegiac 2-D The Illusionist, which won best animated film at the European Film Awards and New York Film Critics Circle and a spotlight award from the National Board of Review. It's also nominated for five Annie Awards and best animated feature by the Golden Globes.
This cinematic homage to Jacques Tati, who wrote the screenplay, came about after British producer Bob Last saw Chomet's last animated feature, the Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville, at the Edinburgh Film Fest, where Chomet fell in love with the city. The Tati estate had approached Chomet with a script by the late filmmaker, who had tried to film it, even casting it once, but never got it made. Last saw a way to mix the talents of Tati and Chomet in a film with almost no dialogue (the characters mumble in fragments of English, French and Gaelic), and raised financing from Pathe and overseas distributors (with help from Jake Eberts). Sony Pictures Classics, which released Belleville, picked up the film stateside. "It's a big challenge to decipher any single line," says Last. "It's a stateless movie, a simple mythical story." And yet the meaning is crystal clear to a global audience.
As Chomet adapted the script, he changed the period and the locations, adding London and the western isles of Scotland to France. He increased the age difference of the peripatetic older magician chasing after a dwindling audience, and the young runaway girl he takes under his wing, in order to make clear that the relationship was more parental than romantic. (Tati had lost touch with his abandoned illegitimate daughter; details are
murky here.) The melancholy Tati-modeled magician is struggling to make a living performing a lost art amid the encroaching pace of the modern world. While Tati had not intended to play the role himself, Chomet pays homage to Tati's physicality and peculiar brand of comedy.
Chomet, more than any animator since Miyazaki, focuses on capturing the glories of nature with painterly landscape vistas, chugging steam trains, mountains and cities surrounded by changing light, fog and weather. The environments are palpable, and gorgeous.
Last and Chomet, based in a warehouse in Edinburgh, hand-picked a group of animators from across the globe to painstakingly realize this movie. At their peak, 200 animators were laboring on the film, which was hand-drawn with colored pencils on paper shipped from Canada, from their homes scattered all over the world. Teams of animators specialized in particular characters, performing them in the mirror as they drew. While the look and feel of the film is traditional, inspired by early Disney films, Chomet is a modern-day filmmaker who utilizes digital effects to place 2-D animation in 3-D landscapes to create a "hallucinogenic sense of space," says Last. "You feel immersed in it."
While Last is well-set to produce another animated feature (possibly in 3-D) in Edinburgh, Chomet now has set his sights on directing a live-action film.
Interview with Sylvain Chomet: