Featuring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin. Rated G.
France’s melancholy Jacques Tati gets a revival of sorts in The Illusionist. The world-famous filmmaker died in 1982, and his daughter Sophie passed away 20 years later (both from lung cancer), but not before allegedly passing the screenplay to Sylvain Chomet, the animator best known for The Triplets of Belleville. The original was probably aimed at a different daughter, Helga, whom Tati had with a Czech woman during the war, in occupied Paris, and soon abandoned.
Watch the trailer for The Illusionist.
Chomet calls the girl Alice and makes her a Scottish foundling who latches onto an aging French magician, Tatischeff (Tati’s real name), when he shows up on her remote island. It’s 1959, and he’s travelling—complete with rabbit, hat, and Monsieur Hulot–like stoop—because his form of genteel entertainment is sadly out of date and he needs such backwaters to survive. She follows him to a beautifully rendered Edinburgh (originally Prague), where they set up house in a crumbling hotel, alongside other music-hall remnants, including a suicidal clown and an alcoholic ventriloquist.
Tati’s version rested on the girl’s belief that her father figure’s magic was real, with this shattered by a handsome young rival who exposes the old-timer’s tricks, thereby diverting her ambiguous affections. I mention this because what Chomet has come up with, in a plot spread far too thin at 80 minutes, is exceedingly dull. Here, the blank-eyed teenager simply drains the magician of his money and moves on.
In this almost wordless feature, there are several failed attempts to duplicate Tati’s slapstick humour, as well as a bizarrely homophobic rendering of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. Despite these sizable concerns, The Illusionist still has value to viewers willing to turn off their brains and enjoy some of the best-looking 2-D animation in many years. Just don’t expect to laugh, cry, or feel much of anything while it flickers.