Beautifully composed and incredibly moving, director Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville") takes animation to a new level through sublime simplicity in "The Illusionist," a bittersweet, melancholy tale about a slight-of-hand illusionist at the end of the vaudeville era, as the performers find themselves becoming obsolete.
Told almost wordlessly, if there was ever a filmmaker to make the case for a return to silent cinema, it's Chomet who adapted the screenplay, which is almost dialogue-less but still stunningly evocative, from one originally written by mime/filmmaker Jacques Tati.
There's been a flurry of controversy surrounding the film, with a number of conflicting reports over the inspiration for the film. Many claim it was written as Tati's attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, a child he abandoned as a baby, leading some to speculate the film was inspired by his shame and remains the only public recognition of her existence.
Not that any of that matters when you're sitting in a dark theater being carried along on this enchantingly somber ride.
"The Illusionist," or "L'Illusioniste" in Tati and Chomet's native tongue, is such intimate, delicate filmmaking, it makes Pixar fare look downright garish. Hand animated, the film follows a silver haired magician whose tricks have grown dusty and quaint, whose rabbit has diva tendencies and whose appeal is quickly evaporating in a world where pop rock is emerging. But when the Illusionist travels to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to perform in a small village pub, he meets Alice, a young girl dazzled by his magical powers, especially when he produces a new pair of shoes for her. Though they don't speak the same language and have little in common, they forge a tender father-daughter relationship when Alice stows away in his luggage and finds herself in Edinburgh, at a hotel for vaudeville performers, and receiving more and more "magical" gifts, procured by the Illusionist not through magic, but by toiling at a series of soul-sucking jobs.
Using music and gentle touches of character instead of eruptions of dialogue, the story is unfolds visually, with each slumping shoulder or raised eyebrow conveying what some actors couldn't articulate in a lifetime. Every frame of "The Illusionist" feels personal and familiar but somehow transportive as well. With 3D and computer animation, the idea is supposedly to create a more "immersive" experience but "The Illusionist" is one of the most disarmingly engrossing films of the year.