An unproduced 1950s script by the great French comic Jacques Tati makes the perfect synergy for Sylvain Chomet's meticulous animation style in The Illusionist, his follow-up five years on to The Triplets of Belleville. For all lovers of old style animation it should build up the same cultish following as Triplets.
Jacques Tati's story of the last days of music hall never saw the light of day in the hands of the master. It was his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, who brought the script to animator Sylvain Chomet after she saw and loved Triplets of Belleville.
Chomet who has certain aspects of Tati in his humor and demeanor, as well as in his style of caricature, is perfectly suited to capturing Tati's subtle comic tone.
Set in the early '50s, The Illusionist tells of an aging magician, Tatischeff, touring through Scotland with his magic show. After a rather disastrous outing in the Hebrides the magician sets off for Edinburgh, accompanied by a runaway teenage girl he has befriended.
Although he struggles to earn a living, this unlikely pair quickly becomes a harmonious, platonic couple. Sadly, we all know it is inevitable that this happiness cannot last, and that eventually his protégé will grow up and move away.
Like Tati, Chomet's characters are defined by the way they look and act rather than what they say. Dialogue is virtually non-existent: Tatischeff mumbles in French, the young woman from the Northern Isles speaks Gaelic and there is a smattering of other accents here and there. The story is developed through situations and dramatic gestures.
As much as the film is a love poem to Tati's style of comedy, it is also a love poem to the city of Edinburgh. Chomet has turned Scotland into a dreamland, bathed in a radiant, beautiful light.
There is a wonderful sequence in which the magician ducks into an Edinburgh cinema. In the lobby a poster is clearly visible for The Triplets of Belleville. Tatischeff then enters the auditorium, where he is confronted with a live-action version of himself, as the real Tati is seen onscreen playing his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, in Mon oncle (1958).
These sorts of leaps across and time and space give The Illusionist its own special brand of quirky magic.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Screenwriter: Jacques Tati and Sylvain Chomet
Producers: Sally Chomet and Bob Last
Genre: Animation; English- and French-languages, subtitled
Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking.
Running time: 90 min
Release date: December 25 NY/LA