Magic & melancholy: Handcrafted ‘Illusionist’ conjures comic moments from a visit to a vanishing era
Watching “The Illusionist’’ is like peering through a rippled windowpane onto a past that knows it’s disappearing. A seriocomic evocation of vanished pleasures — postwar Europe, British music-hall performers, the films of legendary French comic Jacques Tati — this glowing animated feature reserves its greatest and quietest melancholy for the gulf that can grow between a father and daughter as the latter moves forward and the former stays put.
The two main characters are, strictly speaking, not related. The Illusionist (voiced in agreeable murmurs by Jean-Claude Donda) is merely a shabby traveling magician sloping toward his last engagement, and Alice (Eilidh Rankin) is the orphaned backstage teenager to whom he shows a little kindness and who joins him on the road. The relationship is classically Chaplinesque but also familiar to anyone who has tended to a child’s growing and then outgrowing one’s care. That “The Illusionist’’ plays out in near-silence against a pointillistic backdrop of European cities and Scottish landscapes — lovingly hand-drawn with the occasional bloom of computer-animated light and horizon — only makes the loss more beautiful and more inevitable.
The title could apply to director Sylvain Chomet himself. The French animator came to international attention with his 2003 debut, “The Triplets of Belleville,’’ a rapturous oddity involving the Tour de France, kidnappings, and plucky grannies. “The Illusionist’’ is more watchful and much slower — you’d think it’d drive Pixar-trained kiddies crazy with boredom, but I know of at least two children who love this movie, perhaps because its small details respect and repay their intelligence. For one thing, the Illusionist’s white rabbit — a cute, fuzzy nasty that snaps at anyone who comes near — seems directly descended from Monty Python’s Killer Bunny.
The film’s roots go further back, actually. “The Illusionist’’ is based on an unproduced screenplay by Tati, the director-star of a handful of rigorously hilarious post-World War II, post-slapstick classics. (That’s 1958’s “Mon Oncle’’ playing in the cinema the characters duck into here.) The story goes that Tati intended the film as a means to reach out to his daughter; Chomet, who has children of his own, clearly recognizes the story’s fertile emotional terrain.
Yet because Tati was a scrupulous miniaturist, those emotions remain underground, secondary to mood and perfectly timed pratfalls. As funny as it often is, “The Illusionist’’ is more interested in sketching the dying days of the music hall, Europe’s answer to vaudeville. The dreary hotels and tatty dressing rooms are rendered with deep, detailed affection, their denizens a surreal collection of depressive clowns, eccentric ventriloquists, peppy acrobats, and twin midgets. The mostly dialogue-free soundtrack is graced with precision sound effects and a lilting waltz composed by Chomet. The entire film seems to take place at sunset, to the tune of a departing train whistle.
It’s fitting, then, that this could stand as Tati’s final performance. The title character is drawn to resemble the master himself, and although the comedian died in 1982, he’s here in line and spirit: the stooped beanpole frame, the quizzical expression, the muttered asides, the exasperation with modernity. Tati was a conservative in the cultural sense; his films are profoundly reactive, occasionally peevish. Chomet sands the edges off the bitterness and places the Illusionist in a magical bygone Europe that owes as much to Hayao Miyazaki and the Hergé of “Tintin’’ as to Tati himself.
The tragedy — and it’s a small, unavoidable one — is that Alice is too busy living in this world to see it; she assumes her guardian’s vanishing rabbits and appearing coins are the real deal. A handcrafted jewel of a movie, “The Illusionist’’ understands the illusions that sustain us in youth and that we have to let slip in the end. It’s the rare work of art that cherishes both the magic and the trick.