Audiences reared on Western animated features may have never before seen anything quite like The Illusionist. Adapted by French director-animator Sylvain Chomet from an unproduced live-action script by the late Jacques Tati, and set in 1950s Europe, it's the tale of a middle-aged vaudeville magician appropriately named Tatischeff, en homage to his creator. This stage entertainer is a bit of a one-trick pony: his entire repertoire seems to consist of variations on making handheld objects appear and disappear, and -- once per show -- whipping a hefty, bite-happy rabbit out of his top hat. World-weary and sick of being second-billed to teenybopper rock bands and playing for empty houses, Tatischeff nevertheless continues to trudge through Britain and ply his trade. In the midst of this, he draws the attention of a young girl named Alice. She actually believes that the stage illusions are real, and provides Tatischeff with unsolicited companionship, journeying with him from town to town.
The Illusionist constitutes the long-delayed follow-up to Chomet's debut feature, The Triplets of Belleville (2003), and as such, it's a prime example of how to improve on greatness. Triplets was remarkable for many different reasons -- as a visual cornucopia, a foray into way-offbeat surrealist humor, and a resurgence of a very specific type of Euro animation traditionally absent from American cinemas. But one of its most pronounced strengths was a low-key existentialist angst, evident most pointedly in the first act. One of the most delightful qualities of The Illusionist is Chomet's willingness to take the initial melancholic ennui of Triplets and sustain it for all of 80 minutes. The tone is just about perfect. In pulling us into animated versions of the sleepy British hamlets of the post-WWII years, Chomet weaves and perpetuates a quiet lyricism. Everything onscreen is gentle, mellow, languorous -- and that feels exactly right for the setting. We do run into some of the same kinds of wacky, uninhibited eccentrics who populated Belleville (such as a nutty ventriloquist dwarf, and a team of acrobats who do synchronized skips down a hotel staircase while rhythmically chanting). These characters are relegated to incidentals, though, and never overtake the material. Instead, the main focus is on the understated, adult-oriented drama of the unlikely platonic friendship between a lonely pre-teenage girl and an equally isolated adult man who senses, quite rightly, that the world is on the verge of forgetting about him. The most interesting aspect of this relationship has Tatischeff building Alice's sense of self-worth by purchasing more grown-up apparel for her -- a formal coat, a long dress, high-heeled shoes. He's essentially preparing her for womanhood, as a father might. One can imagine a more heavy-handed director overplaying the friendship or the paternal-filial dynamic between the two lead characters, but Chomet keeps it light and subtle, and lets us infer the specifics. He also brings the central relationship to a perfect end. Though the film's final act will not be revealed here, it wraps up beautifully, culminating with a stunning last-minute insight into Tatischeff. It's amazing that a single visual clue could convey as much information as it does, but anyone who leaves before the closing credits (and Chomet's personal dedication) will miss much of the story's meaning.
The director also perceives the value of layering many different emotions not simply within the story, but within individual sequences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the episodes that show the magician looking into alternate work options as his stage opportunities peter out. These scenes provide a considerable amount of jocularity, with hilarious set pieces including a sign-painting gig orchestrated by the acrobats, and Tatischeff's stint performing magic acts in the window of a department store (where he whips bras out of thin air before crowds of spectators). But beneath all of this is a mournful, elegiac quality tempering the laughs -- our knowledge, alongside the character's, that this is the beginning of the end for his magic career. Chomet also implies, given the fates of some of the supporting characters, that this period may spell the last gasp of British vaudeville itself.
The Illusionist merits high praise for its thematic depth and ambition, and for the masterful tonal control that Chomet displays from first frame to last; however, what really pushes the film over the top in terms of excellence is its breathtaking aesthetic beauty. Done predominantly in vibrant pen-and-ink, with watercolor fills (with computer-generated effects minimal to nonexistent), the degree of detail is staggering. This extends to both the impressionistic backgrounds and the facial expressions of every character onscreen, including the ones who only turn up for a second or two. What the film suggests, visually, are the kinds of rich and dense illustrations found in classic children's books, brought to stunning animated life. This makes Chomet's presentation as dazzling as his content, and turns The Illusionist from an unusually accomplished and ambitious animated picture into a small knockout of a movie.