If Sylvain Chomet's 'The Triplets of Belleville' was a rollicking, proudly eccentric adventure, then his follow-up, 'The Illusionist,' is something much more bittersweet, a love letter to silent showmanship and a lament for its obsolescence on both stage and screen. 'The Illusionist' has the distinction of being based upon an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, who played the affably bumbling Monsieur Hulot in several classic comedies, and the illusionist himself (named Tatischeff) is clearly modeled upon that character/filmmaker. (They even encounter one another in an amusing moment of happenstance.)
It's 1959 Paris, and our protagonist's sleight-of-hand tricks can no longer compete with the likes of garish rock-n-rollers, so he takes off for Edinburgh, where he keeps company with other struggling performers and dazzles a young housemaid, Alice, with his sly skills -- a continual illusion for an awe-struck audience of one that Tatischeff cannot maintain for free for much longer...
The animation is less exaggerated when compared to the walking blimps and towering skyscrapers of 'Belleville,' and when Chomet takes his hand to the scenery of Scotland, it's positively gorgeous; empty theatres, quaint inns and sweeping cliffs are all rendered perfectly picturesque. The character design beyond our plain leads skews a bit more cartoonish (plump opera singers, swishy rockers, the world's saddest clown), and their often whimsical appearances help counter-balance Tatischeff's work-related woes.
Our magic man works hard to maintain an interest from the general public and sustain an illusion for the little girl, moving from stage shows to wedding receptions to department-store gigs before settling for odd jobs like car repair and billboard painting, and Chomet works hard to keep things wistful rather than outright dismal. The style of animation, the nature of aggravations, and Chomet's own musical score help strike that proper balance, as 'The Illusionist' languishes over the divide between skilled pantomime and the noise of the modern age, between old-school hand-drawn animation and new-fangled computer-generated efforts, between innocence and imagination and the dreary duties of reality.
Chomet's contributions to the medium of animation are uniquely charming and evidently crafted by hand and with heart, qualities all too rare these days just as Tati's own films were themselves outstanding at the time. Both filmmakers found themselves faced with a changing world, and each found different ways to demonstrate the shifts in social strata with good humor and no small amount of frustration. However, Tati wrote 'The Illusionist' as a means of reconcilation with an estranged daughter, only to never film it, and the pangs of regret resonate stronger and stronger as Chomet's adaptation draws to a close.
In fact, at the risk of using too heavy a label, 'The Illusionist' does ultimately feel like a bit of a downer. Maybe the comparisons to 'Belleville' aren't helping, since that film escalated in rowdiness, while this film's simple charms begin to extinguish themselves in the name of sad truth before ending with, yes, a glimmer of hope that magic will live on for those who choose to believe in it. At first, the appearance (and disappearance) of Tatischeff's bite-happy rabbit is a running gag, and a cute one at that, but the animal is all too fitting a symbol for the troubling tonal tightrope that Chomet struggles to walk throughout: would you reach into a magic hat if you knew it was going to hurt?