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'The Illusionist' relies on more than cheap tricks

In The Illusionist, Tatischeff, right, indeed has a rabbit in his hat. In an age of 3-D imagery, virtually all of the scenes in the animated film have been hand-drawn.

Sony Pictures Classics

In The Illusionist, Tatischeff, right, indeed has a rabbit in his hat. In an age of 3-D imagery, virtually all of the scenes in the animated film have been hand-drawn.

The Illusionist (PG) (80 min.) — One of the few surprises among this year's Academy Awards nominations is the inclusion of Sylvain Chomet's anachronism in the best animated feature category, alongside techno-blockbusters Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. It's a situation not unlike the title character's life.

The hero is Tatischeff, an aging magician in 1959 whose quaint showmanship is being shoved aside by the rock 'n' roll revolution. His act, mostly conjured wine glasses and scarves with a cranky rabbit in his hat, gets upstaged by a funny, fop foursome called the Britoons in London, and in a Scottish highlands pub that just installed its first lightbulb for his act. Not a minute after he finishes, the owner plugs in a jukebox.

Tatischeff's time has passed, except for a poor teenage girl named Alice he meets at that pub, who believes his sleight-of-hand tricks. When he departs she follows behind, to Edinburgh where he gives her what she wants in this wide new world: a chic coat and shoes like the window mannequins she admires, an apartment feeling like home.

There is never a hint of impropriety, only a mutual need for feeling appreciated. Alice takes advantage of Tatischeff's generosity like the child she is; he dotes upon her like the grandfather he never took time to be. It's a beautiful relationship, a nearly wordless, emotional bonding echoing Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp caring for the Kid.

The Illusionist is delicately subtle for modern animation, not relying on gee-whiz episodes ripe for 3-D gimmickry. With the exception of a few computer-generated pans over landscapes, the images are lovingly hand-drawn, as with Chomet's slightly superior (and also Oscar-nominated) The Triplets of Belleville. The soundtrack is a small marvel of music hall tunes and dialogue that is mostly garbled, allowing expressions and body language to be interpreted.

Chomet adapted his film from an unproduced screenplay by French filmmaker Jacques Tati, whom Tatischeff is drawn to resemble and, in a meta moment, sees on screen when he ducks into a theater showing Tati's 1958 Oscar winner, Mon Oncle. It is just one simple amusement in a lovingly crafted film of plenty. (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg) A

Steve Persall, Times film critic

'The Illusionist' relies on more than cheap tricks 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 3:30am]

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