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Originally published Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'The Illusionist': Hats off to this magician's tale and tribute to Jacques Tati

"The Illusionist," an animated and almost dialogue-free film directed by Sylvain Chomet, is based on a screenplay written by Jacques Tati in the 1950s and is also a tribute to Tati. It is playing at the Harvard Exit.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Illusionist,' an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet, from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. 80 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking. Harvard Exit.

A gentle, wistful tale of two people who briefly become a family, "The Illusionist" is both a tribute to the French filmmaker/comedian Jacques Tati and a final word from him. The film, animated and almost dialogue-free (the little dialogue we do hear is often unintelligible gibberish), is based on a screenplay written by Tati in the 1950s but never produced. It does not feature his trademark character, the charmingly oblivious Monsieur Hulot, but someone quite different: a middle-aged magician who's all too aware that his shopworn rabbit-from-a-hat act is out of date, and that the midcentury world, with its wild-haired musicians and speedy pace, is passing him by.

Traveling to Scotland for a performance at a remote village pub, he meets an innocent young woman dazzled by his act. She's naive enough to believe in magic, yet independent enough to follow him on the boat back to Edinburgh. They live together for a brief time, like father and daughter; she tidies their modest hotel suite, he secretly works extra jobs to buy her presents. Time passes, the girl falls in love with a young man, and the magician finds himself setting his rabbit free and moving on. "Magicians do not exist," says a note he leaves behind.

Filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, the imagination behind 2003's entrancing animated fantasy "The Triplets of Belleville," fills this quiet and often sad story with detail. Note the girl's forlorn yet contented way of following the magician around; the warm light of the pub; the colorful fellow residents at the theatrical hotel; the magician sitting in a movie house while Tati's "Mon Oncle" plays; the sweet way the girl dances in a new coat he has bought her, transformed in her own eyes into someone she's always wanted to be.

"The Illusionist" received an Academy Award nomination this week for best animated film; it's nice to think that Tati, who died in 1982, is somewhere smiling.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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