Ever since its inception in 2001, the Best Animated Feature Oscar has been dominated by glossy computer-animated films. Most of them do deserve the recognition, especially those that possess an unexpected level of profundity and insight (read: Pixar movies). But it is also quite lamentable that the award hasn’t recognized the diversity of animation styles and the different emotions that each of them can evoke. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the Academy though and is probably indicative of the general state of the animation industry as a whole.
But there are times when the Academy does recognize good, traditionally animated movies, and one filmmaker from this genre that has gotten multiple nods is the French animator and director Sylvain Chomet. Two of his movies were nominated for the Oscar – The Triplets of Belleville in 2003 and The Illusionist in 2010 (both films lost to Pixar movies, specifically Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3). He was also nominated in 1997 for Best Animated Short Film for The Old Lady and the Pigeons, where again he lost to Pixar for Geri’s Game.
Despite the different visual qualities of Triplets and The Illusionist, there is a lingering sense of nostalgia that saturates every scene. Both movies feature aging performers whose glory days are far behind them, making his characters metaphors for hand-drawn animators and his films feel like love letters to their dying craft. Both movies also contain very minimal and almost unintelligible dialogue, which makes his story-telling technique based on imagery more than anything. Watching Chomet is like seeing a piece of painting come to life, and you can’t help but feel longing for the European countryside and cityscapes that he animates.
Most of his movies’ quirks are inspired by Jacques Tati, another French director and comedic actor famous for movies like Mon Oncle (1958) and Play Time (1967). A lot of the physical comedy and slapstick humour are inspired by his films, and The Illusionist is in fact based on one of Tati’s semi-autobiographical scripts. While this particular adaptation has generated some controversy, Chomet undoubtedly shares the same penchant for creating whimsical movies that bring back childhood memories.
Of his two feature films, I prefer The Triplets of Belleville more because of its narrative momentum and ingenious plot. It is about an elderly woman named Madame Souza, whose grandson Champion participates in the Tour de France and gets kidnapped by the French Mafia. She tracks them down and gets help from the Belleville Triplets, three old women who used to be music hall singers in the 1930s. The four of them then come up with a rescue plan to free Champion from his captors. This movie has surrealist elements to it, from the exaggerated style of drawing the characters to the wacky tone that is sustained throughout the entirety of the film. I found it to be a very visually stimulating movie that deserves multiple watchings.
The Illusionist, in comparison, moves at a much more languid and meditative pace. It is about a magician struggling to find a stage to perform on. He impresses a young girl in one of his performances, and she comes to believe that his magic is real. She leaves her town and travels with him, and the two of them develop an intimate father-daughter relationship. In order to support her, the illusionist secretly takes on multiple demeaning jobs as he finds it harder and harder to compete with more modern acts. The most moving aspect of the movie is the bond that develops between the two central characters, which Chomet filled with so much meaning and complexity.
Both movies have something interesting to say about obsolescence and change, but what Chomet shows us is that hand-drawn animation is far from obsolete. His films have run the gamut of human emotions, and it is nice to see something different from the digital movies that major studios churn out. It is rumored though that his next film will either be live-action or CG. Maybe that will win him the Oscar?