Panning "The Illusionist" is probably the quickest way for a critic to get himself labeled cynical and unfeeling. Beyond the built-in charm of its origins -- it's based on an unproduced script by the late French comic superstar Jacques Tati, and animated by Sylvain Chomet, the creator of the beloved "Triplets of Belleville" -- the story has enough sentimental schmaltz to grease a locomotive.
The central figure is a vaudeville trouper on his last legs, pulling rabbits out of hats for small, disinterested audiences. At his side is his waifish protegee, introverted but optimistic, whose affection for the old man is sometimes childlike and sometimes almost romantic.
The girl shares his rooms as he tours a string of Scottish music halls. He uses his final turn in the limelight to help those around him find happiness and fulfillment. He entertains the girl with his legerdemain and buys her clothing he can ill afford. When he falls out of favor on the circuit, eclipsed by a narcissistic rock 'n' roll band, he is reduced to pulling brassieres out of his top hat in a department store window.
Can't you feel your tear ducts throbbing already? Well, you're on your own. I didn't feel a twinge.
Tati's script seems to have been written in a rare self-pitying mood, and it's unattractive. He might have made something of the picture. He was a live-action filmmaker of magical gifts; starring in his own elaborately choreographed comedies, he created dream worlds of deeply layered absurdity. A modest, unobtrusive performer (he began as a mime), he rarely did funny things; rather he showed everyday things in funny ways.
In his film "Playtime," there is a simple shot of him waiting in a glass-walled waiting room, framed and shot from a perspective that calls to mind an aquarium. He could create hilarious visual rhymes between objects. In "Traffic," a shot that appears to show a woman's large breasts turns out to be a misaligned view of her baby's buttocks.
"The Illusionist" lacks that kind of associative magic. It has all of the notes of a Tati film but none of the music.
* Rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking.
* Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.