The Illusionist -- Film Review

Following the triumph of his wildly inventive "The Triplets of Belleville" in 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet is off in an entirely different direction in "The Illusionist."

BERLIN -- Following the triumph of his wildly inventive "The Triplets of Belleville" in 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet is off in an entirely different direction in "The Illusionist." Where "Triplets" exploded with narrative invention and cartoon foolery filled with cultural references, bicycle racing and strange juxtapositions, all told at a manic pace, "Illusionist" is at heart a simple story about an old vaudevillian and a young girl in the late 1950s. It's a mood piece, and that mood is melancholy.

Whereas Triplets won awards and major distribution deals, Illusionist looks like a more rarefied adult cartoon that will have loads of invites to festivals, but theatrical exposure outside Europe might be scant. Chomet's name alone assures some level of distribution on several platforms, but buyers might be wary this time.

The film represents, in a sense, a collaboration beyond the grave. To secure a live-action clip of Jacques Tati for Triplets, Chomet contacted his only surviving daughter for those rights. Then Sophie Tatischeff mentioned an unrealized script by her father that Chomet's animation style might ideally suit. Et voila, you have Illusionist, a cartoon based on Tati's original live-action screenplay.

This was a story obviously close to the heart of the great comic icon. Perhaps too close, as you can see why Tati never shot this scenario, which he apparently concocted in the '50s. It concerns an aging magician, playing tackier venues with each new city, and a young girl naive enough to thrill to his magic act. Tati never committed this downhearted tale to film, choosing instead to end his career with light, satirical fun.

Like a Tati movie, Chomet's film shuns dialogue and lets individuals' physicality express their inner lives. Although Tati comedies never really tell jokes, they are funny in their gentle whimsy and meticulous sight gags. But Illusionist is not a comedy at all in that sense.

The magician does encounter amusing situations with drunks and other obstacles to his act, not to mention a highly recalcitrant rabbit that resents being pulled from a hat on a nightly basis. But these are more sad-funny than funny-funny episodes.

A young woman who encounters the magician in a pub in a tiny Scottish village hugging the rugged coast is enthralled by his magic. She follows him to Edinburgh and keeps his house while he performs anywhere he can -- even in a department-store window. He buys her increasingly expensive gifts, which he says came his way through magic. In time, she grows up enough to fall in love with a boy her age. The magician knows he must move on.

The real beauty of Illusionist lies in its drawings. Chomet is a traditionalist here, insisting on hand drawings where 3D computer animation is all the rage in the animation world. The story moves from Paris to London to Scotland, and its cityscapes and landscapes are gorgeous. A final swirling crane shot of Edinburgh, where the camera seems to fly up and over the city, is sheer magic.

Illusionist fairly shimmers in strong burnished colors. The characters designed by Chomet pay loving tribute to the world of Jacques Tati, even to the point of designing the title character to resemble him. Tati's daughter, who died before the movie was completed, would have been very proud.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival

Production: Studio Django/Django Films in association with Cine b
Director-adaptation: Sylvain Chomet
Screenwriter: Jacques Tati
Producers: Bob Last, Sally Chomet
Executive producers: Jake Eberts, Philippe Carcassonne
Art director: Bjarne Hansen
Character design: Sylvain Chomet, Pierre-Henri Laporterie
Music: Sylvain Chomet, Malcolm Ross
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 80 minutes