Sweet and sad, “The Illusionist” is a cartoon for grown-ups.
Not that this animated French film from writer/director Sylvain Chomet, who made the wonderful “The Triplets of Belleville,” wouldn’t be suitable for the smallest of children. It’s rated PG, and the only reason the MPAA failed to give it a G is because the main character occasionally puffs a cigarette.
(He and other characters also appear stumbling drunk, which apparently doesn’t bother the ratings board.)
The real reason little ones might not enjoy “The Illusionist” is that it’s simply not intended for them. There are no big, colorful animals, goofy gastrointestinal noises or enchanted princesses. It’s a poignant tale about regret, generosity and ungratefulness.
The film is based on an original screenplay written by the late Jacques Tati a half-century ago. In the tradition of its mime author, it is virtually dialogue-free — the characters speak, but in gibberish with a recognizable word in French or English here and there. The gorgeous, largely hand-drawn animation looks like a 19th-century painting of 1930s Paris and London.
Tati reputedly wrote the screenplay intending to make a live-action movie with his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. The name they share becomes that of the protagonist.
Tatischeff (voice by Jean-Claude Donda) is an itinerant magician who plies his trade in venues grand and squalid. An older gentleman, he carries a quiet dignity to his act, whether the audience is few and indifferent (which is often) or large and rapturous. He seems to have no friends beyond the plump rabbit that’s part of his act — and even it nips at his fingers whenever they’re presented.
Performing at a ritzy outdoor party, he’s offered a gig at a remote Scottish pub by a stumblebum drunk in a kilt. It requires undertaking a major journey but turns out to be one of his most receptive audiences in years. Tatischeff also befriends the young servant girl who irons his shirts. Seeing her distressed boots, he buys a pair of red shoes for her with his earnings.
Soon the girl has tagged along on his journey, becoming his surrogate daughter and companion. Permission is not asked or given; they simply find an arrangement that suits both of them and acquiesce to circumstance.
Tatischeff and Alice (Eilidh Rankin) — for that is her name, though we never hear it — come to live in a seedy London hotel whose denizens all seem to be struggling entertainers. There’s a clown who doesn’t need makeup to look sad, a triplet of acrobats and even a ventriloquist with a funny, red-headed puppet that both resembles and channels himself.
Their relationship grows, deepens … and sours. Neither is a bad person, but inevitably the things they desire out of life diverge. Tatischeff merely wants to perform his craft for a grateful audience while Alice is entranced by the dazzling trappings of a big city — bright lights, fancy restaurants and fashionable clothes.
Tatischeff compromises his principles to give Alice the things she wants but it’s still not enough.
The tone of “The Illusionist” is reminiscent of “Limelight,” one of Charlie Chaplin’s last films. Both are about an aging vaudevillian whose audiences have mostly drifted away, and then a girl enters his lonely life and changes it.
The outcomes are different, though. “Limelight” was about the old stepping aside for the young. “The Illusionist” has a more mournful lesson: Sometimes we do not appreciate what is given to us, and that lack exacts a toll on both the giver and the gifted.