The Illusionist is a charming if melancholy animated film about an aging magician reduced to performing in nearly empty music halls, pubs, or even department store windows. Just as the story is based on a shelved screenplay by the late French comic Jacques Tati, the figure of the traveling conjurer represents the gangling Tati himself. Indeed, the magi’s poster bills him as “TATISCHEFF,” Tati’s actual family name—clearly an homage.
The illusionist is joined on the road, platonically, by Alice, a maid still so young she believes his magic is real. He keeps the belief alive, even secretly working odd jobs so he can buy her the things she wants, then making them magically appear. Not only is the treatment “classically Chaplinesque” (as a Boston Globe reviewer noted) but the plot itself is an obvious reprise of Chaplin’s Limelight .
Despite its borrowings, however, The Illusionist is an artistic accomplishment in its own right. From the backgrounds and figures lovingly rendered in watercolor washes (with artful touches of computer animation), to a cast of characters that includes a wacky ventriloquist, rubbery acrobats, and a suicidal clown, the story unfolds with poignancy, sadness, and comic relief—never more hilarious than the scene in which Alice serves Tatischeff some stew while he looks frantically about for his bunny.
The soundtrack artfully combines waltz music, sound effects, and scant dialogue, mostly replaced with effective murmurings. The result is an almost silent-film treatment that enhances its fairy-tale quality.
In all, animation director Sylvain Chomet has conjured up a delightful fable that balances the sad decline of a magician (and his illusory world) with the awakening of a young girl into womanhood and real life. As she finds romance with a young lover, you don’t have to be an old magician like me to foresee the new illusions—the new kinds of magic—that will enthrall. When Tatischeff leaves Alice a note proclaiming, “Magicians do not exist,” he seems not to realize that that view too is illusory.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four).