Earning a coveted Oscar nomination alongside “Toy Story 3” and “How to Train Your Dragon” for Best Animated Film is French director Sylvain Chomet’s minimalist, melancholy homage to legendary French comic actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati, creator of “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” who died in 1982.
The wistful, almost wordless story revolves around an elderly vaudeville magician named Tatischeff (mumbled by Jean-Claude Donda) who packs up his recalcitrant rabbit, leaving Paris for London, where he realizes that rock ‘n’ roll has replaced his kind of sleight-of-hand act in the music halls. So this genteel, dignified performer winds up in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he attains modest success. Living in a shabby boarding house that’s filled with circus performers, he befriends Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin), a naïve, young chambermaid who eventually becomes his assistant. Their evolving relationship is tender, paternal and touching, as generous Tatischeff takes on odd jobs to provide Alice with the luxuries she increasingly covets.
Adapted from a 1950s screenplay by Jacques Tati, entitled “Film Tati No. 4,” the script was inherited by Tati’s late daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, who passed along the project to inventive Sylvain Chomet, best known for his 2003 Oscar-nominated “The Triplets of Belleville.” Working in the Gothic quaintness of Edinburgh, Scotland, with his British wife and co-producer, Sally, writer/illustrator/composer/director Chomet conjures up a sweetly sad tone poem that’s filled with bittersweet nostalgia, utilizing Walt Disney’s archetypical, hand-drawn 2-D animation to create exquisite imagery, particularly shimmering reflections in department store windows. And in one remarkable scene, Chomet meticulously recreates “Mon Oncle,” one of Tati’s classics. Since Jacques Tati was 6’3” tall, the magician’s exaggerated frame is elongated, his hands are enlarged and his shoulders droop as he lurches forwards with Tati’s familiarly uncertain gait.
A curious footnote concerns Tati’s grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, who told British news media that the idea sprang from his grandfather’s guilt over
abandoning his daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne, who is McDonald’s mother.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Illusionist” is an enchanting 10 – for 80 masterful minutes.