Based on a never-filmed script by the French comic Jacques Tati, the story serves as a touching look at the connection between two lonely souls. The Illusionist makes sense whether you know Tati's work or not, although I suspect the bulk of its audience will be well versed in such Tati classics as Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967). Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, died in 1982.
Beautifully drawn by Chomet and his team, The Illusionist tells the story of an aging magician who develops a relationship with a girl who's on the cusp of womanhood. Chomet infuses his movie with little of the manic energy that drove his Oscar-nominated Triplets of Belleville (2003). The Illusionist displays the kind of gentle restraint the story requires, and, like its predecessor, it, too, has been nominated for an Oscar in the best- animated-feature category.
The Illusionist begins by charting the magician's downward spiral. He goes from nearly deserted vaudeville houses to a pub in a small Scottish village. There, he finds what every performer wants, an audience member who's totally enchanted by his work. The sweetly naive Alice watches the magician in wonder, and believes he's really capable of performing magic.
When the magician leaves the village for Edinburgh, Alice tags along. Magician and girl occupy a shabby hotel suite in Edinburgh (he sleeps on the sofa), and we gradually watch as the magician becomes desperate enough to try his hand at ordinary work. Meanwhile, the girl begins to blossom into womanhood.
I'm not sure of the last time I used the word "lovely" in a review, but The Illusionist qualifies. Employing a minimum of speech, Chomet takes a tender, sad and lingering look at the end of a magician's career and the birth of a new phase in the girl's life. Set during the 1950s, the movie takes place at the tail end of the kind of live entertainment that since has vanished or morphed into Las Vegas spectacle.
The magician is a Tati-like figure, who arrives on screen complete with inspired physical bits that shouldn't work in animated form, but do. I've read that Tati's grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, objects to the movie. (You can read the letter he wrote to critic Roger Ebert and decide what you want to make of it.) Tati's daughter Sophie, who since has passed away, gave the script for The Illusionist to Chomet.
Family issues aside, The Illusionist can't and shouldn't be dismissed, and perhaps it will draw a new generation to Tati's work. With an obvious appreciation for the real-life actor who inspired this animated figure, the magician has been drawn as a tall man, a loner who's not entirely at home in the world. He seems to have suffered quietly for his art.
The Illusionist might have been unbearably sad had the magician not taken steps to help the girl realize her womanhood. He buys her clothes that ease her transition to adulthood. He watches with a mixture of admiration and anxiety as this teen-ager begins to take on care-taking duties, cooking him dinner, for example. Surely, the magician knows that the more transformed the girl becomes, the sooner she's likely to move on with her life.
Chomet understands that Tati was a comic, and he provides laughs as the movie makes its artful way through a fable that explores the complexities of a father/daughter-like relationship. The Illusionist, I think, embraces two kinds of magic: In one, a magician pulls rabbits out of hats and performs other sleights of hand; in the other, people move -- as they do -- from one stage to another. Sadly or happily, time passes.