The French animated film The Illusionist is as wispy and delicate as a helium balloon floating on the wind. It's based on a 1956 screenplay written by the French director and actor Jacques Tati, who created his own ethereal, fragile '50s and '60s comedies like Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Play Time. The Illusionist feels Tati-esque for its comic subtlety and prolonged study of an idiosyncratic personality. In a cinema dominated by mass-produced, often woefully similar garments, The Illusionist is like a hand-knit sweater crafted by a beloved granny.
The film's idiosyncratic personality is a loping, dignified middle-aged French magician (who bears a striking resemblance to Tati, who died in 1982) with a fixed repertoire of tricks: pulling rabbits out of hats, making full glasses of wine magically appear, grabbing coins from behind children's ears. There is a gentleness and sweetness to his act, though for the most part it's lost on his audience. While the crowds turn out in droves for the hip-swinging, grinning, and prancing rock acts who often proceed him, the illusionist is an anachronism in his 1950s landscape. His outmoded act, performed for slim audiences, forces him to constantly change venues (they get worse as he goes on) when he is politely booted from each gig. In one humorous detour, he has fallen so far from the brightly lit marquees of Edinburgh (where director Sylvain Chomet lives) that he ends up on a tiny, remote Scottish island as removed from the glare of show biz as the face of the moon.
French animator Chomet, who made his heralded debut with The Triplets of Belleville, is a bit of an old soul himself, using mostly hand-drawn animation to give his film a mellow, gorgeously old-timey look with an occasional resemblance to the style of Disney's 101 Dalmatians — though the pace is pure Tati. Chomet humorously emphasizes just how remote the illusionist's next gig is by showing his progress to his final destination via train, and then ferry, and then small boat, and then car. At the festive, homey pub where he performs, he catches the fascinated attention of a young girl, Alice, delighted by his command of illusion. When he leaves the island, Alice follows, a dutiful acolyte who cleans their small hotel room while the magician performs his act. An innately generous man, the illusionist tends to cater to Alice's every whim, buying her pretty shoes and dresses like an indulged daughter. It's a set-up that might be a little odd in non-cartoon form: young girl shacking up with much older man. But like all of The Illusionist, that conceit is nothing less than charming in Tati and Chomet's hands. He seems a man of very little vanity or need, content to perform his act, nodding hello to passing policemen or entertaining young children with his magic because of the simple rationale that he is kind. The character is frankly nostalgic for a dying music-hall world of antiquated entertainments, but it may make audiences equally nostalgic for a gentler, more mannerly time.
As The Illusionist unfolds, we get the sense of the isolation and difficulty of the magician's life traveling from place to place with his angry rabbit and magic kit. As his prospects wear thin, he has to take demeaning jobs, first at a garage where he nearly destroys a zoot-suited hipster's car, and then as a shill for a department store, doing magic tricks in the store's display windows, pulling perfume and bras from his hat.
With its quiet approach (words are kept to a minimum in this largely visual film) and beguiling innocence, so rare in any contemporary movies, The Illusionist has the ability to unite both adult and (sophisticated) child viewers. Perhaps, like the equally adorable Fantastic Mr. Fox or Up, it presages a new era of more clever and more thoughtful animation that can reach across generations. Sweet but with a melancholic edge, if it is occasionally too slight, too circumscribed, or too molasses-paced for its own good, it's a minor quibble next to The Illusionist's overarching charm.