Hand-drawn animation, once the mainstay of Disney and other studios that created “cartoons” for popular consumption, is becoming something of a lost art. Audiences seem to prefer Pixar-style CGI.
Disney itself may be partly responsible for the form’s decline, since all of their hand-drawn features since 101 Dalmations – with one or two rare exceptions – have been animated in more or less the same tired style. What’s even worse, other Hollywood feature animators, e.g. Don Bluth, tend to copy the Disney style. To find a hand-drawn feature with genuine originality and vitality one has to look outside Hollywood. In the East, there’s Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). In the West, one of the few artistically successful hand-drawn features of recent years was The Triplets of Belleville (2003, above) by France’s Sylvain Chomet.
Thus, I eagerly look forward to Chomet’s second feature, The Illusionist, premiering tomorrow in Edinburgh and France. According to the Edinburgh Film Festival’s plot synopsis, “Chomet’s animation is based on an unfilmed script by Jacques Tati [Playtime] with the action transplanted to 1950s Scotland. Accompanied by a starstruck little girl, an over-the-hill magician treks wearily to Edinburgh, where he hopes to find work and an audience for his old-school entertainment.” An IMDB plot summary makes it even clearer that the art of the film’s main character, a stage magician, is presented as a metaphor for the “dying” art of hand-drawn animation: “the story of a dying breed of stage entertainer whose thunder is being stolen by emerging rock stars….” Let’s hope this film finds an American distributor. And soon.
ADDENDUM: According to Cartoon Brew, Sony Pictures Classics has acquired The Illusionist for North American distribution, and they’re planning a US release by the end of this year.
ADDENDUM II: David Cairns, reporting from Edinburgh, says, “Fans of Chomet will love it, and fans of both Chomet and Tati (which I confess to being) will really love it.”