“The Illusionist,” about a magician, is itself the product of a magical collaboration. The screenplay was written by Jacques Tati, the great French mime and filmmaker, who died before he ever got a chance to film it. It’s now been adapted and animated by Sylvain Chomet, the great French cartoonist who made “The Triplets of Belleville.” Chomet never met Tati, but the old master would almost certainly approve of how Chomet has brought his story to life.
Tati and Chomet are a perfect match, as you might have guessed if you’ve seen “The Triplets of Belleville” (which includes footage from Tati’s first movie, “Jour de Fete”). Tati’s films, despite being made well after the advent of sound, featured little dialogue, emphasizing physical humor and sight gags instead. They often had a certain melancholy about them. All of that applies to “Triplets,” and especially to “The Illusionist,” which is simultaneously one of the most enchanting and most grown-up cartoons I’ve ever seen.
It’s set mostly in the U.K. in about 1960, where a fairly average stage magician named Tatischeff (that was Tati’s real name) performs wherever he can. We gather he was once successful on the music-hall circuit, but that phenomenon — live shows with a variety of acts, all on one ticket — is waning, being replaced by television, rock ‘n’ roll, and other more modern entertainment. Now Tatischeff is lucky to get a gig in a noisy pub or at a company picnic. He lives alone with his rabbit, a vicious thing that will bite you if you try to pull it out of a hat.
While performing for a small but appreciative crowd in a Scottish pub, Tatischeff meets Alice, a naive young chambermaid who believes his sleight-of-hand feats represent actual magic abilities. She joins Tatischeff when he returns to the city of Edinburgh, becoming something like a daughter to him as he keeps trying to make a living. They reside in a hotel populated by other crumbling vaudevillians: a trio of acrobats, a ventriloquist whose dummy is his Doppelganger, the world’s saddest clown, and so forth.
Tatischeff the magician, I should point out, looks very much like Tati, and in particular Mr. Hulot, the character Tati played in several of his films (including “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” and “Mon Oncle”). Had Tati gotten around to making “The Illusionist,” he’d have played the magician. It’s easy to imagine it: Chomet’s version is animated, but it’s not “cartoonish.” The people are drawn as caricatures — I especially love the preening, prancing rock group Billy Boy & the Britoons — but their movements are essentially realistic and human. As in a Tati film, even the minor characters are distinctive-looking.
“The Illusionist” begins as a fairly jaunty story, filled with jokes and merriment, before evolving into something wistful and sad. It is the end of an era for the magician and his colleagues. The music halls are closing up. And the magician’s only real relationship is with Alice, this sweet girl who must eventually grow up and leave magic behind.
True to Tati’s intentions, there is almost no dialogue in the film. What there is, is spoken in the character’s native language (French, English, or thick Scottish brogue), with no subtitles. This adds to the story’s quiet simplicity, giving it a forlorn tone as it closely resembles the very type of old-fashioned entertainment whose extinction it chronicles.
Because it is a cartoon about a magician and a little girl, you might be tempted to take children to see “The Illusionist.” You should resist this temptation. While none of the content is objectionable, the story is too slow, the action too subtle, to hold a little kid’s interest. Even adults may be surprised at how poignantly understated it is, an elegant and emotional elegy for a bygone era.
A- (1 hr., 23 min.; )