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The Illusionist

Charming tale of a French conjuror who befriends a naive lass in late-1950s Scotland.

Following up his debut, the acclaimed animated feature “The Triplets of Belleville,” writer-helmer-animator-composer Sylvain Chomet doesn’t disappoint with his delightful sophomore outing, “The Illusionist.” Based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, the pic’s tale of a French conjuror (modeled on Tati) who befriends a naive lass in late-1950s Scotland is a very happy marriage of Tati’s and Chomet’s distinctive artistic sensibilities. Auds, especially in Gaul, who don’t expect animation to be aimed squarely at kids or to feature the latest technology will be utterly entranced by “The Illusionist’s” old-school magic, but less adventurous viewers may need some persuading.

Action begins in a seedy Parisian nightclub, where Monsieur Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) conjures glasses and scarves from thin air and pulls his truculent, obese rabbit (a charmer to match the dog in “Triplets”) out of his hat for bored tots. Kindly and ever so slightly befuddled by the modern world, and given to wearing an overcoat, the character’s a dead ringer for Tati’s persona in some of Gallic cinema’s most beloved movies (“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “Playtime”).

Accepting gigs wherever they may be, Tatischeff travels to London for a booking and then boards trains and boats to get to a remote Scottish island where electricity has only just arrived. There, he meets Alice, a teenage domestic in the pub/guesthouse where he performs. Out of kindness, Tatischeff buys her a pair of new shoes, and Alice credulously believes he really can make things out of thin air.

She tags along with him to Edinburgh, where they chastely set up house in a hotel largely populated by circus performers, including a morose clown, a drunk ventriloquist and a troupe of constantly shouting, relentlessly bouncy trapeze artists. Alice guilelessly expects Tatischeff to magic up ferry tickets and new clothes for her as-needed, so in order not to disillusion her, he’s forced to take jobs on the side to supplement his meager income.

All this unfolds with barely any dialogue, in the spirit of both Tati’s films and Chomet’s previous work (including not just “Triplets” but also his first short, “The Old Lady and the Pigeons,” and his live-action, mime-themed short for “Paris, je t’aime”). What voices are heard are basically a mumbly garble, with only the odd comprehensible word in French, English or Gaelic, although the accents and phonetics immediately communicate the speaker’s origins. It’s a very cartoony conceit that recalls vintage mid-century animation from around the world.

Indeed, the pic is a thrilling exercise in retro aesthetics, from the pencil-and-watercolor look to the 2D animation that harks back to mid-1960s Disney (especially “101 Dalmatians”) and the delicate lines and detailed backgrounds of Gallic animator Paul Grimault, to the details that perfectly evoke Scotland in the 1950s. All the same, the backgrounds here brim with little jokes that the long takes offer a chance to catch, such as the sight of lobster thermidor (with a fried egg on top and haggis) on offer at a fish-and-chips shop.

As much as it is a tribute to Tati (the pic is dedicated to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, who sanctioned the film but died before she could see it), “The Illusionist” is also a love letter to Scotland and Edinburgh in particular. Attention is paid to the city’s geography and quaint-Gothic feel, to its muted, creamy light, and to the Scots’ humor and good cheer. Outside Gaul, Scotland should be the film’s most enthusiastic market.

Pace may seem a little slow for those reared on contempo animation, but for those immersed in the film, the rhythms are delicious. Evocative score by the helmer himself, with pseudo-period rock songs by former Aztec Camera member Malcolm Ross, enhance but never upstage the action. CGI is used sparingly for transitions and difficult camera movements, never breaking the pic’s old-fashioned spell.

There were no end credits on print at the screening caught, and the names of the voice cast are unknown.

The Illusionist

U.K.-France

Production: A Pathe Pictures (U.K.) presentation of a Django Films (U.K.)/CineB (France) production. (International sales: Pathe, London.) Produced by Bob Last, Sally Chomet. Executive producers, Philippe Carcassonne, Jake Eberts. Directed, written by Sylvain Chomet, based on a script by Jacques Tati.

Crew: (Color/B&W); character design, Chomet; music, Chomet, Malcolm Ross; art director, Bjarne Hansen; animation director, Paul Dutton; lead animator, Laurent Kircher; lead compositor, Jean Pierre Bouchet; digital supervisor, lead 3D supervisor Campbell McAllister. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 16, 2010. Running time: 78 MIN.

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