Nestled alongside Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist may appear to be the sentimental favorite. Not only is it French—and mostly hand-drawn rather than mouse-manipulated—but it’s also an unexpected posthumous work from the legendary filmmaker Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime), who wrote the previously unproduced screenplay way back in 1956. As the movie itself never tires of insisting, however, things aren’t always as they seem.
Like Chomet’s previous feature, The Triplets of Belleville—and like Tati’s own films—The Illusionist unfolds almost entirely in pantomime, with only the occasional word of dialogue. A middle-aged, low-rent stage magician, after performing for the locals on a tiny Scottish island, befriends a teenage waif named Alice, who winds up following him to the mainland. Early on, he buys her a much-needed pair of new shoes, and playfully pretends to have conjured them out of thin air. Alice, however, truly believes in his magical powers, little realizing the personal sacrifices her benefactor is making to keep his surrogate daughter in a state of constant delight.
We can’t ever know how Tati’s version of this weirdly masochistic story might have played as a live-action movie. As animated by Chomet, though, it never fully comes to life, in spite of the breathtaking beauty of each individual frame. (Actual steam-engine smoke has never billowed so majestically.) The problem, I suspect, is that Tati’s films, in which he invariably played the lead role, were predicated entirely on his own stylized, whimsical performance, which no animator in the world could possibly hope to replicate. The Illusionist’s title character looks like Tati, but it’s akin to watching Robert Downey Jr. play Charlie Chaplin—impressive, on some level, but not remotely in the same league as the real thing. Alas, that leaves an enormous black hole at the film’s ostensible center of gravity, to badly mix my cosmological metaphors. Oscar’s underdog may have the rabbit in the hat, but for true magic, keep looking to Woody and Buzz.