Less spirited, whimsical and witty than his marvelously macabre anime The Triplets of Belleville, comic-book artist Sylvain Chomet adeptly adapts and directs what was based on an unproduced script by French mime, director and actor Jaques Tati in 1956.
The Illusionist is a charming piece of old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation that has already earned a nod in the early part of the award season. It includes the voice talents of Jean-Claude Dorda (from Belleville) and Eilidh Rankin in the chief roles.
The initial setting of Paris 1959 sees Tatischeff as a magician starting to get old in a time when a new revolution is on the cusp as touched upon in Nowhere Boy. When work runs dry in the City of Lights it's off to London for a while in a clamorous pub before trudging out to a remote hamlet in the Scottish Highlands. But, the struggling prestidigitation outsider of an artist will relocate to Edinburgh as a young adolescent naif in Alice whom he meets is taken by him. Looking out for her may be in his best interest while it's getting tougher to make ends meet.
A bittersweet melancholy is felt throughout the proceedings with little dialogue and considerable visual wit, as well as a subtly pungent send-up of the entertainment world during a time when Khruschev vs. Nixon is seen on the newsstands. With Tatischeff (Tati's actual name) losing his show biz mojo - his rabbit won't stay in his hat and popular bands making girls swoon, the film takes its time to hitch into a generous spirit through the notion of what Tatischeff really does. Even in a bygone era his milieu resonates with so many in an unstable global economic climate.
The price and fleeting nature of celebrity is evident as well as what advertising entails. Chomet's artistry invites much visual pleasure and amusement for what he derives and depicts in his regard for a country with its share of kilts, cows, and sheep. There are some acrobatic triplets and ventriloquists (with a life of their own) in a tale that will make many (albeit older and probably slanted towards Tati a bit) art-house patrons smile for good measure. One that maybe deserves more admiration than praise.
Nevertheless, if some may feel The Illusionist plays too much with perception it is a creative, sometimes exhilarating recreation with droll, tender realism exhibited through the way a seemingly effortless performance artist and a young woman (who gets some nice white high-heeled shoes and an expensive white coat) settle down through each other.