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Rated 2.95 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Hulot's Heritage
by Donald Levit

About time passing, growing up or old, love, parting and loneliness, sacrifice and stoicism, and magic as-long-as-you-believe-in-it, The Illusionist is smaller-scale and sadder than Sylvain Chometís previous, The Triplets of Belleville. But this is once again in the labor-intensive 2D hand animation of Ď60s Disney, for which studio graphic novelist Chomet briefly worked and which to fanfare returned to the method for The Princess and the Frog. Actually, the new hour-and-a-third delight is an adroit blend of 2- and 3-D, the latter CGI for cityscapes and mechanical vehicles, its visual depth reinforcing foreground characters and by contrast adding emotional depth to them.

For reasons connected with Triplets, the French director/adaptor/character designer/score composer had contacted the sole surviving daughter of Jacques Tati, Sophie Tatischeff (the original family name), and was told of the existence of an unproduced filmscript written by the late legendary director and actor. Reading it on the train to the Triplets world premiŤre at Cannes 2003. Chomet realized that the lead character was uncomfortably close to that of its author. Thus, instead of live dramatization, types of animation would be the way to go with this work by the former professional rugger and cabaret and music hall entertainer, without raising one-to-one implications.

With some added bits and Prague become Edinburgh, the film remains basically silent in terms of dialogue, the Illusionist and the girl Alice speaking different languages and their and othersí brief lines really gobbledygook, anyway, with locations cleverly announced by shop, street or train station signs or by costume or posters.

Tatiís M. Hulot, like Chaplinís Little Tramp and other wordless screen creations, is a sane good soul, with characteristic walk, outfit and prop umbrella or cane, clueless but miraculously surviving in a society not designed for him. A fine line separates the persona from being cloying, crossing over into maudlin cuteness, and though there are such dangers in this story, they are too few to mention even if the result is too philosophical and sad for children and macho males.

In Paris the decade of Limelight, Tatischeff -- it says so on the poster he carries rolled in a tube -- plays the equivalent of our vaudeville circuit, pulling coins out of thin air and rabbits out of a top hat, soldiering on despite decreasing and indifferent audiences or, rather, simply oblivious to the death of the tradition.

By train (of which there are lots) and ferry he goes up to Londonís Emporium Theatre, where he is upstaged and ignored because of the rock íní roll sensation of the sexually ambivalent foursome, Billy Boy and the Britoons.

Impatient, but never angry, Illusionist Tatischeff again trains, ferries and motor launches to an isolated Scottish island. Hard-drinking villagers applaud his act, but the first hookup to electricity, and a light bulb and jukebox, signals what is to come. The innís young charwoman Alice alone remains enchanted with the travelerís ďmagic,Ē topped off with new red shoes conjured up for her.

A stowaway, she follows him to fairyland Edinburgh, where the two are father-and-daughter (and rabbit) at the Joe Hotel, a wonderful conception in itself. Run by midgets, and rundown, it houses theatrical performers like Italianate acrobats, a ventriloquist whose lookalike dummy and companion winds up in a pawnshop marked down to ₤3 and then for free, and an alcoholic suicidal clown who plays over and over the same warped 78 record.

The clown illustrates how Chaplin, Keaton, Tati -- frames of whose My Uncle are worked in -- stayed on the right side, whereas, for example, The Clown, Silent Movie and so much of Robin Williams confuse bathos with pathos and offer schmaltz for sentiment. The girl Alice takes care of the apartment, while he performs in front of dwindling, unappreciative numbers. She experiences the city and moons for fashionable high heels, a dress and coat, which magically come to her courtesy of his new secret moonlight jobs at Gino Lebosiís garage and then in Jenners department store window, where he pulls, not rabbits, but reduced-price brassieres from the hat.

Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys, adolescent girls become young ladies, and handsome young men next door attract them. The purity and innocence of youth cannot stay, and if the womanchild seems grasping and ungrateful, thus it has always been in the nature of things and of life. Maybe it is only those closer to the final curtain who learn, for the Illusionist momentarily declines another sleight of hand on another train, leaving a pencil stub as a pencil stub.

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG" for thematic elements and smoking.)

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