Movie Review: “The Illusionist”

With “The Illusionist,” fans of the late, great and generally silent French comic Jacques Tati have what is, in essence, his final film. It’s an animated farce in the Tati style , based on a Tati  (“Mon Oncle,” Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”) script.

The lead character, a tall unflappable Frenchman of few words, looks like Tati. And since Tati rarely spoke, director Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”) has license to basically resurrect him for this quiet, clever and adorably whimsical cartoon comedy.

In the late 1950s, a veteran magician struggles to make a living in an entertainment world that has passed him by. What with rock’n roll bands such as The Britoons, and television, “The Illusionist” can’t hold an audience with his quiet and gentle tricks. It doesn’t matter that he’s a master at his trade. Nobody wants to see a cranky bunny dragged out of a hat anymore.

Tati and Chomet get this across in a single clever sequence. Standing in the wings, the magician lights cigarettes that he will yank out of a pocket early in his act. But the darned teenagers keep screaming, and the darned Britoons keep doing encores. The illusionist has to tamp out the cigarettes and start his prep over again. And again. And when he takes the stage, the teenyboppers have fled.

But in an intimate setting, the guy kills. A wedding booking leads a drunken Scots bar owner to hire him for his pub. Thus, magician and bunny make the cross channel trek to Scotland, where once again, our hero leaves them begging for more. Such pre-TV outposts are rare. It’s a pity he can’t just stay there, but no booking lasts forever.

And it’s when he leaves town for Edinburgh that things get even more complicated. The poor, friendly and naive maid, Alice, stows away and follows him. He gets to the next big city and not only does he have himself and a rabbit to feed, but this woman-child who seems to think his magic is real, that he won’t actually have to pay for the coat and shoes she covets in a store window.

Like Tati himself, “The Illusionist” feels like a relic of a different time. There are voice actor credits in it, but most of the words are soft and/or faintly garbled. It’s not about the words. Thus, taking kids conditioned by “Shrek” and Pixar to a lot of words and a lot of action could be frustrating for them and for you. Promising ideas, such as sharing a boarding house with under-employed trapeze artists, an unemployed and suicidal clown, are left under-developed.  But the Tati touch is everywhere. The water’s cut-off in the clown’s apartment? No problem. He washes his face with the water-squirting daisy on his lapel.

The hand-drawn cell-animation — no 3D, thank you — is watercolor soft and charming.  As is the film itself. But truthfully, this Oscar-nominated cartoon is a trifle too deliberate, quiet and out of date. How are you going to get kids to sit still for a slow-building Chaplinesque laugh when they’re used to the instant gratification of a “Shrek” fart?

 Cast: The voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin,

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Running time:  1 hour 20 minutes

Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking.

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