Tati was a French cultural treasures, a mime and filmmaker who primarily worked between 1953-1973, in the continuum of classic screen clowns, provides a link between the likes of Charlie Chaplin to Mr. Bean. Chomet adapted The Illusionist based on one of Tati’s unproduced screenplays and hides references to the filmmaker like Easter eggs. Chomet gives Tatischeff the director’s full name and physical persona as a tall, stork-like fellow whose oversized hands and feet constantly get in the way. At one point, the illusionist walks into a cinema showing Tati’s Mon Oncle, and the big-screen, live-action character seems to notice his animated surrogate in the audience.
As an old-fashioned, two-dimensional cartoon feature released at a time when 3-D animation rules the medium, The Illusionist could pay homage to any time-honored profession rendered obsolete by changing tastes and technologies. Performing in 1959, Tatischeff (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) sees the music halls flooded with fans of rock ’n’ roll crooners, but the young audiences file for the exits rather than watch him pull a rabbit from his hat. At one point, Taticheff travels to back-of-beyond Scotland for a gig, but the grandly swelling music suggests that any paid performance still feels like an adventure, no matter how unglamorous the surroundings.
Tatischeff gets a warm reception after playing a ramshackle pub, where the villagers also applaud the new jukebox — one more gizmo that threatens to put his old-school entertainment out of business. He befriends Alice (Eilidh Rankin) a chambermaid charmed by Tatischeff’s generosity, despite the fact that he speaks French and she speaks in an impenetrable brogue. (Like Tati’s films, The Illusionist features so little dialogue that subtitles seldom prove necessary.) Alice impulsively joins Tatischeff as he leaves the village moves on to Edinburgh.
The Illusionist renders the Scottish city’s stately architecture and rolling hills with such beauty that you’ll ache to visit for yourself. The mismatched twosome move (platonically) into a boarding house for other washed-up stage performers, including a suicidal clown and some little people who manage the place. Alice comes across as mildly materialistic as she longs to have nice things, and Tatischeff takes disheartening jobs to support her. Among the slapstick set pieces include the magician working as an overnight parking attendant and a live department store “mannequin.”
Chomet’s purposefully disheveled animation style at times muffles Tati’s gentle physical comedy. The full shots of Tatischeff and his simply-rendered features can inhibit the emotional connections audiences feel torward the live action Tati, even though The Illusionist puts him in the same kind of embarrassing situations. Caricature betters suits Chomet, based on the ironic grotesqueries of his previous film, The Triplets of Belleville, with its obsessive bicyclists, obese Americans and frog-eating elderly singers.
If you already know Tati’s work, or have looked up the father-daughter estrangement that inspired the original screenplay, you’re more likely to be moved by The Illusionist. Even if you’re a Tati fan, though, you may find Chomet’s gentle storytelling a bit drowsy. Instead of an illusionist, Tatischeff could be the kind of hypnotist who puts you in a trance — “You are getting sleepy…” but leaves you with pleasant dreams of yesterday’s entertainments.
The Illusionist. 3 stars. Directed by Sylvain Chomet. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Feb. 4. At Landmark Midtown and AMC Mansell Crossing.
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