I saw both Tangled and The Illusionist within a couple of days of each other through the CTN Expo, and came away impressed by both, but for very different reasons. In a way, these two films represent the Yin and the Yang of feature animation. The difference in animation technique is the least of the differences between these two features. One is intensely personal, hand crafted, subtle, and demands a certain patience of its audience. The other is a big-studio extravaganza, with all that that entails.
Warning: there be spoilers below. Proceed at your own risk.
The Illusionist is all about the personal and the hand crafted. Conceived and written by French comedic actor/director Jacques Tati in 1956, apparently as an exploration of a fantasy relationship with his own illegitimate daughter (fascinating background can be found here), Tati was never able to make the film. The film tells the story of an magician with a fading career, who transforms the life of an orphan girl who attaches herself to him. Apparently Tati never planned on starring in the film himself (for understandable reasons), but The Illusionist director Sylvain Chomet has made Tati the lead character. If you’ve seen any of Tati’s films, you’ll see that Chomet has brought to life a convincing and deftly animated version of Tati in his prime. The character is even named Monsieur Tatischeff, which was Tati’s real name.
The film is an artistic triumph, with every shot lovingly composed, every background beautifully painted, and every background character sharply realized. Like Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville, and like Tati’s own films, The Illusionist has a leisurely pace, scant dialogue, and long scenes with gentle, ironic visual humor. There’s is also the subtle tone of tragedy and regret, of a way of life being lost. It’s little surprise to read that Chomet in particular was inspired by Mon Oncle, Tati’s 1958 film critiquing postwar France’s infatuation the modern. There is even a moment in The Illusionist where Tatischeff stumbles into a theater, and sees on the screen a clip from Mon Oncle. The hand-drawn Monsieur Tatischeff regards the black and white live-action Jacques Tati in mute confusion, then stumbles out.
At the Q&A after the screening one young animation fan asked if that live-action clip had been done in post-production, with an actor made up to represent the animated character. Like most of the potential audience for The Illusionist, he had no idea who Jacques Tati was, and had never heard of any of Tati’s films. This is an obvious pitfall to basing your main character on a now-obscure French character, but my sense is that Chomet has a particular love for the obscure.
The flesh-and-blood Tati’s ambivalence about his illegitimate daughter suffuses the script (he never saw her as she grew up, and never publicly acknowledged her), and for me the weakest part of the film is the way Chomet declines to push past this. Neither of the main characters ever reveal real emotion. The titular character, Tatischeff the Illusionist, has all the moves and expressions we know from Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, but he also has Mr. Hulot’s lack of expressiveness.
Ollie Johnston was famous for asking of animated characters, ‘What are they thinking,’ and in The Illusionist, that question is rarely answered. The daughter figure, Alice, is even less expressive than Tatischeff, and without conversation to reveal their inner worlds, we are left to marvel at the look and movement of the film, while guessing at the character’s feelings and motivations. Unlike most feature animation, it is the background characters who are more revealing, and therefore emotionally engaging. In the end, I admired the film’s beauty and accomplishment, but I experienced it on an intellectual and aesthetic level.
Tangled is a horse of another color. A big studio, big budget production carrying the weight of the Disney legacy on it’s shoulders. It needed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, and still find a way to be true to the still pervasive expectations of a ‘Disney film.’ It is spectacular, beautiful, fast, loud, funny, and a potent mix of familiar Disney tropes and modern filmmaking. For the most part it pulls this melange off, to the pleasure of large crowds and critics alike. A quick visit to the local Disney store shows it’s expected to feed the Princess machine, too.
You’ve probably all seen the film by now, and read a hundred other reviews, so I’ll just comment on what stood out to me. First and foremost was the animation. The best of modern Disney animation have been adapted to a CG film. The cool stuff we thrilled to in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin has been translated to CG characters. They looked and moved like Glen Keane drawings. For some, that might be criticized as derivative, but I think it’s a good thing. There’s a particular kind of emotional expressiveness and appeal that Disney has been known for, and which shines through here. Every pose and every expression in Tangled is pushed to maximum clarity.
As I’ve written before, the old saw that good animation can’t save a bad story, and bad animation can’t hurt a good story, is bunk. This was a basic princess fairytale, with the usual Disney embellishments. It’s got the songs, the evil step mother, the handsome rescuing dude, the magic flower, the funny sidekick animal, the beautiful girl/princess on the cusp of adulthood, the emotionally tortured king and queen, and the goofy secondary characters. Simply put, the story in Tangled is not unlike previous princess stories. These things sink or swim on our engagement with the characters, and our excitement in seeing them live and breathe and move. Rapunzel and Flynn move like the flowed off of a master Disney animator’s pencil. I look forward to seeing the film again.