ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
The French filmmaker Jacques Tati was a latter-day Chaplin with Gallic sensibilities. In just a handful of nearly silent films in the 1950s — 30 years before the Griswolds — his guileless M. Hulot got embroiled in a cascade of fiascos that delighted audiences at the time, and some film enthusiasts since.
That was half a century and a full continent ago, and closer in time to when he wrote The Illusionist than when animator Sylvain Chomet adapted it to the current feature-length cartoon, just nominated for an Oscar. You can see why it was nominated: The faded, painterly images evoke the best of 1960s Disney animation, like 101 Dalmatians: Hand-drawn art, not computer-generated commerce.
But just being old school doesn’t quite get you there, entertainment-wise. The Illusionist is sentimental and twee, with a melancholy tone that feels less earned than foisted upon audiences.
It’s the Cold War era, and the title character is a remnant of the age of Vaudeville: A magician whose once-impressive sleight-of-hand tricks seem out of place when groups like The Britoons — Beatles-inspired rockers who make girls swoon but behind the curtain are as queer as three-dollar bills — can pack in teeny-boppers to bigger venues than he can.
While performing his act in Scotland, the Illusionist meets Alice, a lass anxious to brush the cold dust of her provincial town off and see the world — and he’s as sophisticated as anything she’s ever come across. What follows is kind of road movie tracking the growth of their platonic relationship and its inevitable conclusion as his unrequited feelings leave him lonely.
The artwork is fine if not magnificent (the Illusionist’s hands seems weirdly disproportionate to his body) and the story has its charms, but what’s it all about? The plot, if you can call it that, unfolds slowly even for a shortish film, and you don’t need to be a magician to see where it’s all headed. This is more leisurely, “adult” animation that you might get from Pixar, but that doesn’t make it better: I’ll take The Incredibles go Up making Ratatouille with Wall-E any day. The Illusionist? You need to be in the mood for that.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.