“The Illusionist,” Sylvain Chomet’s sentimental animated film about a fading vaudeville magician and the young runaway who comes under his wing, is a parable worth viewing, especially in these troubled times. For while it is a film about magic and the illusion that tricks can create, before the curtain falls it will reveal something very different: that the sense of control we seek to maintain in our lives, and the idea that we can make everything right for our loved ones, may be the biggest illusions of all.
“The Illusionist” is resolutely not a children’s film. Although there’s nothing inappropriate for younger viewers, its themes of impermanence, the passing of time and the winter of youth’s dreams will hit older viewers with much more impact.
Chomet, who was robbed of an Oscar this year by the formulaic and plastic-hearted sequel “Toy Story 3,” based his film on an old script by deadpan French comedian Jacques Tati, written in the late 1950s, but shelved by Tati because he felt it was too personal, too bittersweet, too much not what the public expected of him. (And “The Illusionist is very much about the fickle tastes of the public.)
Using old-school hand-drawn animation for the film’s characters, and watercolorlike CGI for the backdrops, Chomet evokes a world of musty old Parisian music halls and the winding streets of Edinburgh with loving detail. In both style and subject, “The Illusionist” is gloriously, defiantly retro; it uses almost no dialogue whatsoever, telling its story through expressions, gestures, and mood. (Non-French speakers will be fine.)
Tatischeff is an aging stage magician of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat variety. His audiences have dwindled as the ’50s enter the ’60s, and a younger generation flocks to squeal at the rock ‘n’ roll squall of bands such as Billy Boy and the Britoons. With his cantankerous rabbit, Tatischeff travels to Scotland, where he hopes his luck will change. At a remote island in the Hebrides where he lands a gig at a local pub, he meets Alice, a shy teenage girl in tattered clothes doing the cleaning. Feeling sorry for her, Tatischeff “magically” produces a new pair of shoes for her (he actually bought them) and, charmed, she follows him back to Edinburgh.
This is no Woody Allen tale of June and December romance, but more of a platonic father-daughter thing. For Tatischeff, Alice is not only the child he never had — the dingy hotel where he stays is full of single and lonely performers, including the film’s darkest joke, a suicidal and alcoholic clown — but she may also be the last person who truly, innocently believes in his magic. He tries desperately to maintain the illusion, moonlighting and working various jobs to pay the rent and pamper her. But bit by bit the magic jobs dry up, as does the money, and Alice is attracted to a boy her own age. The magician, however, has one final trick to play . . .
Chomet’s own trick here is to find slapstick humor and moments of great tenderness amid an otherwise bleak situation: the decline into irrelevance of an entire generation of performers. Show biz is a hard, fickle business indeed, and “The Illusionist,” ironically, offers no illusions. Like the best humanist cinema, though — and 1948 classic “Bicycle Thieves” is, for once, not an exaggerated comparison — Chomet’s film offers a belief in human bonds and kindness as the most magical thing of all.