The Triplets of Belleville, the feature-film debut of French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, was a hilarious, relentlessly inventive marvel — the sort of absurdist comedy that kept surprising you by heading in unexpected, wonderful directions. The Illusionist, Chomet’s second film, is markedly different in tone and mood. The movie is based on an unproduced screenplay by the late Jacques Tati, the revered director who often starred in his films, such as Playtime and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, and specialized in wryly comic explorations of modern culture.
Tati lives in the spirit of Tatischeff (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), the eponymous magician, is having an increasingly harder time making a living in France in the 1950s, when music halls and vaudeville revues were starting to go out of style. Trying to find a permanent home for his act, he travels across Europe and winds up in a tiny village where he befriends Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a teenage orphan who joins him on his travels as his surrogate daughter.
Chomet has drawn Tatischeff to look strongly reminiscent of Tati’s iconic screen persona — tall, always wearing a raincoat, slightly hunched over at the waist, a pipe often in his mouth — and there’s a magical moment when Tatischeff goes to the movies to see Mon Oncle (one of Tati’s best films) and is confronted with the real-life incarnation of himself projected on a giant screen. In another sequence worthy of the late master, Tatischeff gets a job at a garage and is assigned to wash a car, something he has no idea how even to begin to do but accidentally finds a suitable, funny alternative.
Although there is a lot of charm in The Illusionist (the rabbit that Tatischeff uses in his act is foul-tempered and uncooperative), the movie is suffused with an air of melancholy that grows stronger as Alice grows up and no longer needs to depend so heavily on her guardian, while Tatischeff realizes his profession is on the verge of extinction. Like The Triplets of Belleville, there is little dialogue in The Illusionist — Chomet, like Tati, prefers using images over words — and the drawings of a post-war Europe are intricate and gorgeous.
But the movie’s second half, which grows progressively sadder, also starts to feel a bit repetitive: The Illusionist, which has nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, needed one more story element, one more primary character, in order to avoid skirting so close to dullness. The film ends on a note of graceful, heartbreaking beauty that Tati would have admired for its lack of sentimentality. A lot of what precedes that ending, though, is precious and slight and a little too fanciful.
Voices: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin.
Writer-director: Sylvain Chomet. Based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati.
Producers: Bob Last, Sally Chomet.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. studios release. Running time: 90 minutes. No offensive material. In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday Jan. 11 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway, Las Olas; in Palm Beach: Delray, Shadowood, Living Room.