There are plenty of movies, and plenty different kinds, that could be said to have cartoonish sensibilities. (Take Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn and Dan Aykroyd's Yogi Bear as two examples.) What distinguishes the gentle comedies of Jacques Tati—1958's Mon Oncle being arguably the most notable, and a fine place to start—is that they are genuinely cartoon-like. As well-meant agent of chaos Monsieur Hulot, Tati led ensembles of non-actors through closely choreographed panoramas punctuated by recurring gags and physical humor, and through parallel debts to mime and silent film he found sound itself more useful than dialogue. Few other filmmakers have managed or even attempted to match his achievements, and so they remain unique, even a bit magical.
The only thing in recent memory to come close, in fact, is French cartoonist Sylvain Chomet's nearly wordless 2003 feature The Triplets of Belleville. So it's appropriate enough that he's followed it up with a direct tribute to Tati, and an indirect addition to his canon. Written by Tati for his daughter in 1956 but never produced, The Illusionist follows aging music hall conjurer Tatischeff through the early throes of obsolescence. His sole companion is an obese white rabbit, whose unruliness upends a Parisian gig and sends them on the road looking for work. In a London theater, Tatischeff is repeatedly preempted by an incomprehensible rock band; performing at a wedding, a heckling drunk commands more attention. In a small Scottish fishing village, his opening act is an electric light bulb.
The confounding march of the modern world, through technology and the way humanity bends in accommodation, was always a clear preoccupation for Tati, and The Illusionist is no exception. While Hulot was typically little more than a bystander, Tatischeff (lovingly recreated by Chomet and lead animator Laurent Kircher from Tati's own image and manner) has invested himself in a world where illusions are not taken for granted, and is watching as the banal magic of the 20th century takes their place. In an Edinburgh boarding house, he meets others in the same trajectory: an alcoholic ventriloquist, a profoundly sad clown, a trio of acrobats whose only steady work, revealed in one of the film's many quietly stunning setpieces, is painting billboards.
Though warmly and consistently funny, the Oscar-nominated The Illusionist clings to a melancholy that contrasts with Tati's caginess, and together with a similarly uncharacteristic narrative focus pushes Chomet beyond rote homage. In rural Scotland Tatischeff encounters a peasant girl who believes deeply and instantly in his magic, and he does nothing to discourage her belief; on the trip back to Edinburgh he finds she has followed him home. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in his bed, and day by day he commits further to the illusion even as his professional situation worsens.
Tatischeff speaks only French, and the girl only Gaelic, but the language barrier is of as little consequence in Chomet's world as in Tati's. (As far as the real world goes, the film has been bravely and correctly released without subtitles.) Against the sumptuous backdrop of mid-century Scotland, Chomet and his animators are mostly successful in bending to Tati's patient rhythms and style; their sense of montage is more purposefully expository, but it never distracts from the poetry of their images, or the humane subtleties of the script.
At times it's hard to resist picturing a scene played out with real actors, just as it's difficult to be suitably awed by Tatischeff's animated sleight of hand. (It says a lot about Jacques Tati that these complaints are nearly interchangeable.) Still, there is a fitting sense of misdirection as Chomet fills the frame with activity of shifting importance. We may be focused on a startling encounter with the ventriloquist's dummy and only too late realize that Tatischeff has been off in the background mollifying a landlord with parlor tricks.
A sad controversy surrounds the film, which is dedicated to Tati's youngest daughter Sofie, who sold Chomet the screenplay just prior to her death in 2001. Significant evidence suggests Tati actually wrote The Illusionist as a gesture of reconciliation toward his illegitimate daughter Helga, whom he had abandoned as a child, and thorny feelings abound. It's a pity that the context of such an obviously personal and paternal work remains in question, but The Illusionist works equally well as a love letter and a confession of regret, and is at the very least a gorgeous, reverent celebration of an enduring artist by another who is only now emerging.