Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not Just an Illusion

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
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Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to the surprise Triplets of Belleville (2003) is the melancholy meditation on the rapidly growing modernization of the changing world and lifestyles, The Illusionist. Based on an unproduced script from famed French filmmaker Jacques Tati, The Illusionist follows an aging magician attempting to make ends meet despite the growing inevitable changes of the modernized world developing around him. His audience dwindles as rock groups begin to thrive, as people flock to more exciting forms of entertainment rather than those traditional charms offered by our protagonist's sleight of hand. The struggling illusionist befriends a young woman named Alice whose perspective compliments his own. She's young, naive, and idealistic, with innocent eyes in which to peer out upon the world. Perhaps in Alice the performer can see the last piece of child-like awe and fascination left in the world, opposed to fast paced excitement, fleeting trends, and commercial entertainment.

Like Chomet's previous film and the work of Jacques Tati the film is largely silent. There are small bits of dialogue spoken but none of it is very essential and much of it is difficult to understand. Chomet is, like Tati was, a visual storyteller. Though this time around, contrary to Triplets of Belleville, Chomet has crafted a much subtler film. Though populated by a few of its own odd characters it is not quite as eccentric a movie as Belleville. The music this time around also fits The Illusionist's softer tone. Wistful and sweet, it matches the movie's warm and inviting disposition. Much of Illusionist's beauty rests in its quiet and reflective moments. Not to say that Illusionist is all gloom, there's plenty of charm and sight gags too, in which some of the best involve the performer's uncooperative long eared stage assistant.

Though it may have a different atmosphere than Triplets of Belleville the movie does not differ in the quality of its animation. Visually it's simply breathtaking, capturing the beauty in even the simplest of locals, meaning in the smallest of gestures, and curious humor in ordinary occurrences. With its moderate pace, endearing characters, minimalistic storytelling, and bittersweet story The Illusionist is the kind of emotional film that sneaks up on you. Before someone is aware they are already under its spell, our hearts have been broken. Its poignancy comes with a painful yet touching price. It may not only be the best animated film of 2010, quite a feat considering it was released the same year as Pixar's third Toy Story movie, which closes the series in an almost equally cathartic fashion, it's also one of the best films of 2010 including the year's live action movies and one of my ten favorites of the year, ranking near the top.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Divine Kings

The Road to El Dorado (Will Finn, Bibo Bergeron, and David Silverman, 2000)
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If The Prince of Egypt (1998) could be described as a poor man's Ben-Hur (1959) the movie Dreamworks made two years later, The Road to El Dorado (2000) can be summed up best as a poor man's The Man who Would be King (1975).

The movie follows two thieves named Tulio and Miguel who win (cheat) a map away from someone in a game of craps, they escape onto a ship, are captured, escape again, thrown about by an angry sea, and eventually end up on the very island and spot where their map begins. A bit convenient? Yup, but this story has to get going somehow I suppose. Then they stumble onto the lost city of El Dorado are mistaken for gods, plan to get away with the city's riches, and come into conflict with the city's strange customs and rituals, and ultimately learn and become better and less selfish people.

Again, I would say the best element of the movie is the animation itself. Just like Prince of Egypt it generally just looks really great. It disappoints me that Dreamworks seems like they are never returning to traditional looking animated films. Compared to The Prince of Egypt though, I just prefer this story to the other. Granted this is a lesser The Man who Would be King while The Prince of Egypt is a lesser Ben-Hur to a point, the choices Tulio and Miguel make feel more important because they are more in control of their decisions, they are men masquerading as gods rather than being instructed by one, which just makes them look like they have better character when they do the right thing in the end, just because it's more their choice to do it.

However, this doesn't mean The Road to El Dorado is an outstanding movie. Ultimately it feels like wasted potential. Some of the voice talent is very good. James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, and Kenneth Branagh are some great names to have on any film billing, but as big a soft spot I have for her, Rosie Perez's voice just doesn't work as a native. Though I suppose the rest of the voice talent for the natives is not authentic sounding, her voice still sticks out too noticeably. The first act of the movie is reasonably entertaining, engaging, and even pretty exciting and funny but when they get to the city the movie kind of just meanders around on screen. The two start to grow apart and there are hints that they are going to grow into better people and learn but generally this portion of the film just treads water until the end with its action set pieces. The final two action sequences are pretty satisfying as well as the need to escape the discovery by Cortez and his expedition.

Overall the film is decent. While it fails to be one of the best animated movies around it is for the most part very watchable, it has a marginally admirable lesson, the music is okay though again rather forgettable, and the animation is again like Prince of Egypt very good. I wish Dreamworks had not stopped animating movies in this way, especially considering how a lot of their CG animated films look like they lack a whole lot of visual personality.