12 January 2011

Chomet’s ‘Illusionniste,’ Disney’s ‘Tangled’: Moving vs. Animated

Dîner en famille: A scene from L’illusionniste

The opening sequence of Sylvain Chomet’s debut feature, Les triplettes de Belleville (2003), announced this animator’s distinctive vision: a “vintage film clip” of a vaudeville act that included cartoon versions of Charles Trenet, Josephine Baker, and Django Reinhardt, among others, before the eponymous Triplets took the stage. Clearly, Chomet understands something about what makes a beloved performer truly distinctive — and, as Triplettes continued, he went far beyond that, with a story that was as emotionally satisfying as it was beautiful and strange. In the heroic Madame Souza, we saw all the determination, self-sacrifice, and courage that we believe our grandmothers must possess, too. “Yes,” we think, “if I were kidnapped by the French mafia, my grandmother would not stop until she rescued me, the way Madame Souza rescues Champion.”

Illusion de beauté: In this sequence, computer animation adds
transparent ripples to water and puffiness to smoke.

For his second animated feature, Chomet has managed the trick once again, and although he’s working from a screenplay by someone else, its author is nevertheless a kindred spirit (however improbably so); the results are so original, so personal — so beautiful and so strange — that L’illusionniste stands as a worthy counterpart to Triplettes. Less laugh-aloud funny and sometimes darker, it’s suitable for children, and yet it should be of greatest interest to grownups.

Gee, your hair smells terrific:
Mother Gothel and Rapunzel share a moment in Tangled.

In that, L’illusionniste differs markedly from Disney’s Tangled, which I saw recently. While strongly showing the influence of Pixar’s John Lasseter, who’s in charge of Disney animation now, Tangled nevertheless feels generic, as if written by a committee — and one avidly in search of the right buttons to push in order to elicit a response from us. It’s not emotionally satisfying, the way L’illusionniste and the best Pixar movies are — but it is great fun.

Apparently boys refused to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s previous animated feature (hand-drawn), with consequences so economically discouraging that the studio opted not to call this retelling of Rapunzel’s story by its right name. Once you’re in the theater, this doesn’t matter much, and Tangled delivers a fair share of delights. It’s beautifully paced, and the 3-D animation (which I saw in plain old 2-D) is extraordinarily accomplished: not least of the film’s achievements is the creation of hair, the sine qua non of this story, of course, but as credible in the case of Mother Gothel’s graying/darkening curls and Flynn’s day-old beard growth as it is in Rapunzel’s streaming tresses.

Kiss the girl? The melody is different, yet the song remains the same.

But much of Tangled feels recycled, and you may sit in the theater ticking off a list of familiar tropes from other Disney movies. You forgive — to a point — this lack of originality on the filmmakers’ part, simply because you feel them searching their way back to whatever it is that makes an animated movie truly special. So you get bad parenting, always a Disney staple; a gang of lovable misfits (thugs here, as they were dwarfs, or alley cats, or mice, before) to help the heroine; child-friendlier liberties with a classic tale (Rapunzel’s boyfriend isn’t blinded, though he is stabbed); and songs by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). Even tiny details remind you of other movies: Flynn has precisely the same physique as Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric.*

Flynn (Zachary Levi) and Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) meet cute;
Pascal the Chameleon looks on.
(Why a chameleon? Maybe it’s the one critter Disney hadn’t already done.)

The greater trouble is that the stakes aren’t quite what they should be. Mother Gothel is, after all, not Rapunzel’s real mother, nor even a wicked stepmother, and while Stephen Sondheim mined these characters’ relationship for emotional truth in Into the Woods, the Disney gang simply don’t manage any kind of comparable insights. Rapunzel’s relationship to her birth parents is so exactly like that of Aurora’s to hers (in Sleeping Beauty), and while the romance between Rapunzel and Flynn is often appealing, you keep catching stray elements from movies as diverse as Aladdin and Lady and the Tramp. Tangled ends up resonating with other movies, more than it does with our inner lives.

The brilliant Donna Murphy provides the voice of Mother Gothel,
the film’s most interestingly realized character.

Most American animated features are written by committee, as I say, and they feel like it; it’s something of a mystery how the storyboarding process at Disney ever did come up with fresh material and genuine emotions. Working this time with a collaborator — albeit one who’s been dead since 1982 — Chomet never panders to his audience in L’illusionniste. He never gives you the sense that he’s working according to a formula, or addressing the concerns of market-researchers, and his movie is a deeply felt expression of a uniquely personal perspective — even if it’s that of Jacques Tati.

Returned to life: Chomet’s vision of Tati

Tati created some of the cinema’s greatest comedies, evincing a pitch-perfect comprehension of the secrets of the great silent clowns: his films are mostly wordless, and the dialogue rarely (if ever) conveys essential information. Mostly, it’s background, reminding us that, in the modern age, we can’t escape the din of competing voices that never say anything of importance. Words are unnecessary, real truth is reserved for that which goes unspoken, and toward that end, Tati’s physical gags are a giddy combination of poetry and ballet.

Chomet has effectively resurrected Tati for L’illusionniste, which is based on an unproduced screenplay by the late filmmaker. It’s a bittersweet work, informed by the regrets of a father who, in the pursuit of his art, sacrificed his relationship with his daughter.** Chomet sustains the autumnal mood in the subdued colors and dour (albeit beautiful) Scottish landscapes. Most remarkably, he casts Tati himself as the Magician, the role he would have played had he been able to produce this film within his lifetime.

Master of illusion, or illusion of mastery?

Tati wrote L’illusionniste in 1956, between his two best-known comedies, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle, and long before the commercial debacle of Play Time (1967), after which he found it more difficult to pursue his own projects.*** Though Chomet’s Magician possesses all of Monsieur Hulot’s physical mannerisms, he lacks the irrepressible, sometimes inexplicable buoyancy that distinguishes Tati’s more-familiar character. Despite the similarity in appearance, the Magician is an altogether different fellow: trading Hulot’s jaunty pipe for a cigarette, and his indefatigable good cheer for wistfulness.

Down on his luck and unable to adapt his act to changing times, when rock’n’roll is edging out more traditional entertainments, the Magician encounters a teenage girl on a remote Scottish island. Naïve to the point of simplemindedness, she believes that the gifts he offers her are created by magic, not purchased from a store. She follows him to the mainland, and they wind up in Edinburgh, living (chastely) in a boarding house for vaudevillians. In the city, the girl’s eyes are opened to ever-more luxurious possibilities, which the Magician struggles to provide for her — without her ever grasping the concept of commerce or understanding that she is badly abusing his generosity.

A failure to communicate, with or without language.

Working long hours at humiliating jobs, cheated by his employers and by his agent, facing professional extinction, surrounded by vaudevillians even worse-off than he, the Magician never complains, yet he never smiles, either. He’s enough to make a young girl believe in magic, however, even while their alliance, as neither family nor lovers, is something more — not less — than it appears.

The movements of the Magician are only a shade less fluid than those of Hulot, but otherwise perfectly rendered; physical gags are actually somewhat more astutely timed than certain of Tati’s stunts were, in his live-action films. Computer tricks combine with exquisite hand-drawn animation, and the watercolor backgrounds eloquently match setting to story. The loopy minor characters, especially the residents of the boarding house, and the affectionate but unsentimental view of show business prove an ideal meeting-point for Tati’s and Chomet’s sensibilities.

Down on his luck: The Magician, moonlighting again.

In fact, while watching L’illusionniste, I understood just how Tati-esque Triplettes was. That’s especially true in the use of dialogue and music on the soundtrack. Here, the most loquacious character is the girl, and she’s speaking Gaelic — which might as well be Venusian, in these circumstances. Words are unnecessary here again, and it’s worth considering that the Magician’s goodbye note is contradicted almost immediately by action.

I probably take animated movies a little too seriously: after all, most of them are made because so many parents use them as surrogate babysitters, and because so many studios use them to generate merchandise. Yet every now and then, a really good animated picture comes along, whether it’s L’illusionniste or Toy Story. Such movies can tell us important truths about ourselves; they’re worth seeking out and supporting, and sharing with others.

*NOTE: The 3-D modeling does give Flynn’s butt an élan that Prince Eric’s didn’t possess. Remember, it’s only a cartoon.

**To most audiences, it may not matter whether Tati intended to describe the daughter he abandoned or the one he acknowledged.

***The construction of Tativille, the setting for much of Play Time, left Tati in massive debt for a decade.

As something of an afterthought, here’s a picture of the real Tati, for those who don’t know his work, demonstrating his phenomenal blend of grace and awkwardness. With his long, long legs (which you see so clearly here), leaning stances, and loping stride, Monsieur Hulot is all angles and odd rhythms, yet completely unaware that he doesn’t fit into the society around him. Hulot just keeps bouncing along (and, equally unlike the Magician, he usually gets the Girl).

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