The many fans of the uniquely droll 2003 animation Oscar nominee The Triplets of Belleville will recognize the inventive hand-drawn sensibilities of French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet in his loving and lovely new feature The Illusionist (in theaters Dec. 25). The title conjurer is an aging old-time French variety-show magician, unsuccessfully peddling his timeworn stage act in the late 1950s to audiences more interested in twist-and-shout rock-&-roll bands. The simple, emotionally potent story — a semi-silent film, in which linguistic gibberish is universally understood — follows the faded showman on a desperate-for-work tour of Scotland. There he falls into the delicate role of a protective father figure to Alice, a young, wide-eyed naïf for whom the magic looks fresh and real. He grows older; she grows up.
The movie is based on an unproduced script by the late French comedy treasure Jacques Tati — the legendary Monsieur Hulot of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday — written as a love letter to his own daughter. And there’s more than a touch of Tati in the physical appearance and gestures of the fictional magician (whose last name, Tatischeff, was Tati’s own by birth). But the steady cascade of tiny, finely observed, slyly witty visual details conveying character, setting, and the 1950s verge-of-the-modern era is Chomet’s own distinctive poetic contribution to Tati’s story. So is his thoughtful insistence on hand-drawn 2-D graphics. ”The strength of 2-D…is it vibrates and it’s not perfect, just like reality in fact,” the director has said. Here’s a perfect demonstration of that aesthetic truth. A-