Jacques Tati only made five incredible theatrical features in his long career, so it was hard to retain composure when word hit that there would be another—sort of. At the behest of the comic-director’s late daughter Sophie, French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) made Tati's never-filmed script The Illusionist into his latest cartoon, in turn resurrecting its long-dead would-be maker. The design of Tati (not portrayed as his regular character M. Hulot, but as a magician) is a marvel: Animator Laurent Kircher nails the befuddled expression and iconic leaning posture. (Although technically those were Hulot’s traits, not Tati’s.) But that’s about all Chomet’s film gets right.
Thing is, the curious failure of The Illusionist may be less the fault of Chomet than Tati himself. All of Tati’s comedies, among them Mon Oncle and Playtime, are essentially plotless—vast canvasses on which to sketch a wide spectrum of gags. With The Illusionist, he attempted a plot. Set in 1959, Tati’s conjurer (sporting his real surname, Tatischeff) bounces around the United Kingdom, playing to minuscule crowds who’d rather be enthralled by preening rockers. Like the suicidal clown, broke ventriloquist and bouncing acrobats who comprise the supporting cast, he’s an entertainer from a bygone era. And despite befriending a young woman of similar financial means, it’s not long before obsolescence overwhelms him.
Tati had a melancholy streak, but his films nimbly avoided self-pity; The Illusionist drowns in it. Though the film retains his minimal dialogue, there are few gags, little humor and, most shocking, scant attempts by Chomet to replicate Tati’s signature master shot style. Scenes are short, rarely allowing the space and freedom that allowed his talent to thrive. It’s easy to imagine Tati, writing this script at the very nadir of his despair after being bankrupted by the financial failure of Playtime, aiming for something like Chaplin’s Limelight , also about an aging, failing entertainer. But Limelight had a formidable life force, whereas The Illusionist is a dirge, complete with a goopy score that Tati would never have allowed. Not all projects require exhuming.