A film so French it seems on the verge of imploding in a plume of quiche and accordion chords, Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist is an impeccably lovely whatsit, a comedy sans chuckles, a cartoon feature without dialogue, a film-geek homage as devotional as any Tarantino co-optation. In an arena vacuum-packed with software-produced digi-animation gloss, Chomet is a blessed freak, still hand-drawing every frame (and using - why not? - a digital detail now and then), a schema that rewarded any eyeballs set in front of his 2003 breakthrough, The Triplets of Belleville. Set to an infectious backbeat, that film cascaded out of a mythified French past like a flash flood of post-Fleischer-Brothers surrealism, and it was a high bar to meet. Chomet's subsequent choice was at once strange and inevitable, given the grand orchestrations of Belleville: to animate an old, never-filmed screenplay by the French director and comic actor Jacques Tati, creating in effect a brand new Tati film, complete with the pear-shaped Tati himself (not as his signature alter ego. Monsieur Hulot, but as Tatischeff, Tati's real name). Fans will kvell, but un-Tati-fied ticket buyers may be mystified.
Tati's story is, as usual, slight, focused on eccentric minutiae, fueled by happenstance, and inhabited by motley characters who mumble and shrug instead of speak. The Tatischeff character (Jean-Claude Donda) is the eponymous magician, scrounging out an existence in the '50s traveling from one concert hall to the next, his act involving juggling and a rabbit-harboring top hat. His fortunes naturally waning as Beatles-like pop bands create riots around him, Tatischeff - who is an amazing simulacrum of the real Tati's shape, agility, fussy mannerisms, and distracted attitude - is lured to a remote Scottish island to perform in a tavern, and in returning to Edinburgh, he ends up with the bar's orphaned maid (Eilidh Rankin), perhaps 15, tagging along. Without a word, the two set up house in a shabby hotel beside a vaudeville house, becoming stuck amid the Scots for lack of money enough to leave.
There's not a microscopic whiff of sexual tension — Tati inhabited an impersonal satirical universe free of melodrama or psychology. The distance inherent in all of Tati is an acquired taste, but this remains Chomet's movie, his song of love and loss, and his draftsman's personality asserts itself with abandon. The Illusionist's primary pleasure is its handmade dream state. As he works on top of unpredictable watercolor backgrounds - the medium's wistful clarity has never been used as beautifully on film - Chomet's battery of details can drug you, from the orange oil light of the Scottish tavern to the hotel's bric-a-brac riff-raff show-biz inhabitants. He knows how to make his drawn lines act, never so much as with a rousingly plastered Scot in a kilt, all grin and flailing arms, who hires Tatischeff and then shows up every now and then in the film with a happy bark, as real drunks do.
Tati's Play Time (1967) and Traffic (1971) are masterpieces thanks to their large-scale mise-en-scène and epic sense of wryly reimagined reality - not because Tati himself was ever funny, because he never was. Chomet's Tati isn't either, and The Illusionist, compared at least with the exhilarating energy of Belleville, slows itself down to an insistent sigh. In all, it's a charming chanson in a minor key, and if you zero in on Chomet's visual grace and his blooming cinephilia, then it's more than enough.