There have been some misunderstandings about “The Illusionist.” This animated Oscar nominee should not be confused with the Edward Norton-Paul Giamatti period piece of the same name from a few years ago, although a waning belief in magic is among both films’ essential thematic concerns. Nor is it wholly accurate to call this one a new offering from the late French auteur Jacques Tati, although of course it does derive from an original screenplay he wrote in 1956.
In fact, this “Illusionist” was adapted and directed by animator Sylvain Chomet, who also made “The Triplets of Belleville” — a decidedly more manic picture, but also a reasonable forecast of the audacity required to take up a dead old master’s unproduced project. Presumably there will be Tati purists who consider this some kind of grave-robbing violation, but Chomet seems as right for the challenge as anyone can be. It has the hallmarks: the nearly wordless austerity, the wistful piquancy, the affectionate and meticulous attention to the details of a character-enveloping landscape. And it has the advantage of stylistic synchronicity — assuming there’s still an audience, however small, that understands both the rabbit-from-hat magic act and the technique of hand-drawn animation as dying arts deserving eulogies.
Our eponymous, highly Tati-esque protagonist is a traveling magician of late middle age, in the late 1950s, who in spite of his dignity seems increasingly unfit for service to the alienating modern world. After his bygone act flops in Paris and then in London, he makes for the Scottish highlands, finding favor with a moth-eaten pub crowd and a starstruck teenaged chambermaid in particular. Chivalrously he indulges her wonderment and abets her half-formed aspirations to upward mobility; she in turn travels with him to Edinburgh, where they share a room in a hotel full of other itinerant passe performers (acrobats, ventriloquist, suicidal clown). It is a romantic relationship, in that its chastity seems romanticized, its de facto paternalism uncriticized. (Reportedly Tati intended the film of his script to star himself and his own daughter.) And it is poignant, in that we know it’s just a matter of time until the girl outgrows both the man and what he stands for.
Maybe some nostalgia for a certain European postwar sensibility is required to appreciate the savory irony that “The Illusionist” is about becoming disillusioned. Watching Tati always was a way of wondering what use slapstick could be after Auschwitz, and then discovering it sometimes more adequate than spoken language after all. Now he’s gotten so spine-tinglingly remote that we can only see his ghost — still roaming through witty bits of business in Chomet’s glowing, gorgeous watercolor landscapes.
You’d think that a movie full of clowning and miming — and a cartoon no less — would be unable to resist slouching into emotional overstatement. But Chomet’s quiet pantomime style, with its impassiveness of facial expression and scarcity of closeups, is purifying instead of cloying. “The Illusionist” might well bore those moviegoers with a taste for the noisier and less delicate tendencies of contemporary animated Hollywood films. But to those who’d rather not keep sifting through the Shrekage, it will seem like vindication.