The Illusionist is the type of movie that sneaks up on you. I spent most of my time watching the film in a sort of pleasant trance. I marveled at the beautiful, hand-drawn animation. I smiled and chuckled quietly at a running gag about the titular character and his surly rabbit that hates being stuffed into a hat. I drank in the attention to character design that made it possible to tell the story with incredibly sparse dialogue. And then the film hammered me with such a bittersweet — and ultimately sad — third act that I was stunned when I realized how emotionally invested I had become in the slight story and eccentric characters.

The Illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) is a man quickly approaching irrelevancy. Well into middle age, he is too old to change his low-key, subdued act when changing times threaten to leave him behind. Playing to small, unappreciative crowds in music halls that have become the home to bands playing a newly popular form of music called rock n’ roll (the film takes place in the mid ’50s) in Paris, he is forced to go further and further afield to find venues that will have him. He eventually winds up doing a show in a pub on an island off the coast of Scotland. While he wows the small crowd, his time there is short-lived when the pub’s owner wheels in a jukebox, much to the excitement of the locals. But before he leaves the island, The Illusionist does a small act of kindness for Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin), a teenage girl that works in the pub. This generous gesture changes both of their lives when she follows him to Edinburgh.

Acting as an unexpected father figure, he tries desperately to book performances to support himself and Alice while they live in a rundown hotel populated by other variety show entertainers. But while he’s technically skilled at his job, The Illusionist lacks the charisma required to sell his old-fashioned act to audiences quickly becoming used to more robust entertainment from the explosion of rock bands to the introduction of television into homes. As performances become scarce, he is forced to confront the fact that he may be have to leave behind the life he has known just to survive.

Working from an original script by legendary French comedic director Jacques Tati, director Sylvain Chomet adapts the story to fit his stylized form of animation, while retaining the usual characteristics of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films (minimal dialogue that is often inaudible, giving The Illusionist Tati’s signature lanky look and hunched-forward gait, whimsical slapstick sequences that are more effective for the way they are underplayed). The effect of Chomet’s occasionally grotesque style meeting Tati’s more whimsical approach gives the film even more of a sense of nostalgia than the story supplies on its own. It seems that Chomet is mourning cinema’s loss of Tati as much as he is reflecting on the ever-changing tastes of audiences when it comes to art and entertainment.

But Chomet goes to much darker places than Tati ever did. While the hotel full of performers is initially played for gentle humor as The Illusionist and Alice form friendships with an acrobatic team, a ventriloquist, and a clown, these peripheral characters quickly become harsh examples of the changes taking place and what happens to those left behind.

Beyond the affecting story and numerous homages to Tati, the film is a wonder to look at. I hadn’t realized just how accustomed I had become to computer animation and how rare the hand-drawn variety had become until watching The Illusionist. The character and location design is stunningly intricate and rendered in a beautiful style that looks like it was done with water colors (but probably wasn’t). The film made me remember just how immersive animation can be even without computers, 3-D, and celebrity voices. All it takes to create a complete world are dedicated animators and a director with vision.

But The Illusionist will be remembered primarily as a nostalgic look back at a different era of entertainers and a loving tribute to Tati. There’s nothing wrong with either of those purposes; just don’t look past the surprisingly sad story at its heart. It will touch you in unexpected ways.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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