Lovingly animating an unproduced script by the great Jacques Tati, The Illusionist is, at least in part, a chaste father-daughter romance. Animator Sylvain Chomet was even given the source material by French filmmaker Tati's daughter.
Chomet sets The Illusionist on the cusp of the '60s. The animator presents his title character, a middle-aged, itinerant stage magician, as Tati himself. The illusionist is given a vaguely aristocratic mien, as well as Tati's actual name, Tatischeff.
Ungainly yet dignified, the illusionist is introduced with a series of mildly disastrous performances. In Paris, he is compelled to play straight man to his obstreperous rabbit. In London, he shares the bill with an obnoxious quartet of proto-Beatles mop tops. The London fiasco is a prelude to a tour of the highlands. The magician gives his most appreciated performance in some back-of-beyond Scottish pub. When he leaves for Edinburgh, the bar's naive young slave girl, an unprepossessing slip named Alice, tags along, convinced that his conjuring tricks really are magic.
At once recognizable and improbable, sketchy and detailed, Edinburgh is, the illusionist aside, Chomet's main character. Tatischeff and Alice move into a hotel full of depressed circus types and separately explore a city populated by cheerful drunks. Alice longs for new, grown-up clothes, and as if by magic, the illusionist provides them. Unknown to her and a source of comedy for us, he's been working nights in a garage and doing department-store sale demos for extra money.
The Illusionist is as comedic as Chomet's previous work, the splendid retro-toon The Triplets of Belleville. As in Triplets, there is far more noise than dialogue. No less impressive than Chomet's character animation is his sense of timing. For its 80 minutes, the movie creates the illusion that not just Tati but his form of cerebral slapstick lives. Late in the movie, Tatischeff leaves Alice a note, explaining, "Magicians do not exist." The Illusionist means to demonstrate that they do.