By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Sylvain Chomet
STARS Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
It only takes one viewing of 1958's Mon Oncle or 1967's Play Time to be convinced that writer-director-star Jacques Tati was one of the great screen comedians of the 20th century, a French filmmaker whose recurring cinematic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, was as beloved in some quarters as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp and Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. Tati passed away in 1982, but now he returns sort of with The Illusionist, a French import that's up for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.
Adapted by writer-director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) from a screenplay that Tati penned but never filmed, this centers on a Tati-inspired magician struggling to find an audience for his old-fashioned brand of entertainment in the late 1950s. Traveling to a small village in Scotland, he meets young Alice, who believes he practices real magic and soon becomes his surrogate daughter.
It's a shame Tati never made this during his heyday, because as a live-action motion picture starring the man himself, it might have been a classic. As it stands, it's a lovingly crafted film that smoothly alternates between being bittersweet and simply sweet, yet the occasionally aloof visual style frequently keeps it at arm's length from our emotions. In short, there's enough magic on view to recommend it, but not enough to declare that it stands with the best of Tati.