The ending of The Illusionist
As you can tell by the title of this post, I'm about to reveal the ending of the film The Illusionist. If you haven't seen it and don't want the ending spoiled, stop reading now.
Okay, so I sort of liked this movie. I liked the mood, I liked Edward Norton, and I was generally invested throughout. About 30 minutes in, however, I realized something that perhaps unfairly colored my perception of the rest of the movie: magicians, as in the real-life profession kind, probably wouldn't like this movie. And that was especially made clear in the context of seeing Ricky Jay in the trailer for The Prestige, a movie about dueling magicians. I don't think Ricky Jay would like The Illusionist.
To explain why, I have to reveal the twist at the end of the movie, portrayed almost sycophantically in a Shyamalan-like manner. Throughout the movie, the magic of the Illusionist becomes more and more supernatural, both to the audience and to the characters of the movie. Because the city's chief inspector believes that the Illusionist was able to conjure the ghost of a woman who was murdered, the inspector becomes willing to solve the crime despite the fact the actual murder is Austria's prince and naming him so will ruin the inspector's career. The twist, eventually figured out by the inspector, is that the Illusionist has no supernatural abilities, and that his conjuring of the woman was completely fabricated, and that she is in fact alive and able to escape with him into romantic happiness.
The problem, and I think what would be the aforementioned real-life magicians' problem, is that the non-sleight-of-hand magic is portrayed in the film with computer special effects, to the point where they are beyond the possibilities of magic performance in early-1900s Vienna. Thus, the audience is purposefully deceived so that the twist ending can be suprising. Let me give you an example. Near the beginning of the film, the Illusionist grows a small orange tree from a pot, which both audiences see grow entirely from bud to tree, with edible oranges included. During the ending's reveal, we are supposed to be convinced of the mundaneness of the trick by several pages of drawings of an orange tree depicting many gears.
While this may be a sufficient explanation in the domain of the movie, it is so laughably unrealistic as to render the whole thing arbitrary. He could've done anything -- turn an elephant into a mouse, have three unicorns galloping on the stage, make a 30 foot pile of Viennese sausage appear -- and the movie could've handwaved it away with a drawing of gears. The fact that the "real" magic in the movie wasn't grounded in the actual craft destroyed my suspension of disbelief, even if in an unfair way. But I think that without computer special effects, the filmmakers might've worked harder at designing elaborate tricks that still could've left the audiences befuddled.
How strange that The Illusionist needs its audiences to suspend disbelief by having them believe that the magic performed is merely trickery, not wizardry.
Update: Compare the above to my thoughts on the ending of The Prestige.
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