The Illusionist is a story about two paths that cross. An outdated, aging magician, forced to wander from country to country, city to city and station to station in search of a stage to perform his act meets a young girl at the start of her life’s journey. Alice is a teenage girl with all her capacity for childish wonder still intact. She plays at being a woman without realizing the day to stop pretending is fast approaching. She doesn’t know yet that she loves The Illusionist like she would a father; he already knows that he loves her as he would a daughter. Their destinies will collide, but nothing—not even magic or the power of illusion—can stop the voyage of discovery. A script for The Illusionist was originally written by French comedy genius and cinema legend Jacques Tati as a love letter from a father to his daughter, but never produced. Sylvain Chomet, the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed creator of The Triplets of Belleville, adapted the script and brought it to life in his distinctive hand-drawn animated style.
If the tall man with the stiff, lurching walk and sad, baggy eyes in “The Illusionist” looks familiar, it’s because you may have seen him before, creating joyful pandemonium on the beach in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” Familiar yet different, because while the tall man resembles Mr. Hulot’s creator — the great French comic actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati — he has been drawn by hand here, from his retreating gray hair to the pumpkin-hued socks he wears onstage when he’s pulling a plump, recalcitrant rabbit from a hat. Directed by Sylvain Chomet and based on a short sketch of a script by Tati, who died in 1982, “The Illusionist” is both a modest homage to its writer and a melancholy look at a lost world. Tati was a music-hall mime before turning to film directing, and it is the dusty stage world of magic and dancing girls that this film recalls with a delicate visual style, tender humor and a sense of loss. Set in the late 1950s, the story opens on an unnamed French magician who is struggling to keep audiences interested in his old-fashioned sleights of hand. The bouquet tucked up his sleeve has become a gift that nobody seems to want. The illusionist’s lonely gloom brightens when, while performing in a pub in an isolated Scottish village, he finds an appreciative audience of one in the form of a teenager, Alice. The two shyly hit it off despite their different languages, communicating with gestures and few words. The illusionist murmurs an occasional “non,” while Alice speaks in sporadic bleats, a minimalism that recalls how Tati used fragments of dialogue more for their noise than for their meaning. To watch — and listen — to his films and “The Illusionist” is to be reminded of how much useless jabbering there is in movies. (The illusionist’s few words are voiced by Jean-Claude Donda, while Alice’s are supplied by Eilidh Rankin.) Despite the absence of dialogue, a story nevertheless emerges, clearly if not loudly, in the relationship that develops between the two characters. The illusionist has come to the dramatically, moodily hued island village, at the invitation of an enthusiastic admirer, a Scot with a deep thirst and a flirty kilt. One day the illusionist notices Alice’s shabby shoes (she works in the pub swabbing floors and washing clothes) and buys her a pair of bright red Mary Janes. This kindness leads to a friendship that only deepens after she follows him off the island and all the way to Edinburgh, where they move into a boardinghouse that’s literally jumping with acrobats and reverberant with the loud miseries of a suicidal clown. Created with both hand-drawn and computer-generated animation, “The Illusionist” is more constrained, visually and narratively, than Mr. Chomet’s last (and first) feature film, the raucous, trippy “Triplets of Belleville.” Many of the new film’s pleasures are reassuring, its nostalgic show world of shabby theaters and rented rooms brought warmly to life with near-tactile detail, from the inviting curve of the rabbit’s belly to the swaying pink feathers on a dancer’s headdress. Mr. Chomet’s muted palette is beautiful, and his love for the 1961 Disney classic “101 Dalmatians” is evident in his gently exaggerated character designs (the father in “Dalmatians” and the illusionist have noble honkers), though he fills in his backgrounds, forgoing the strong, sketchlike lines that help give “Dalmatians” its modernist look.