Sylvain Chomet. According to biographers, Tati was apparently working out some family issues through this screenplay, which would have had him playing a character quite different from Hulot. He put it away to make another Hulot film, Mon Oncle, which became his greatest global hit. Chomet has revised the 1956 screenplay to set it in 1959, the time when the real Tati was at the peak of his fame, while his cartoon analogue, the magician Tatischeff (the comedian's real name), is near the end of his tether. Chomet even has a scene in which Tatischeff briefly blunders into a theater where Mon Oncle -- the real film, in live action -- is playing, just so he can stage an eerie moment in which the filmed Tati on the screen within a screen appears to recognize and react to the appearance of the cartoon Tatischeff in the movie house. The choice of time seems to be Chomet's comment on the contrast between the troubled Tati who wrote the original Illusionist script and the triumphant onscreen Tati of roughly the same period.
Jacques Tati was usually rendered in caricature in the advertising for his films. Turning him into a cartoon character was probably a natural next step.
Leaving Tati's biography aside, there's a more obvious and more stark contrast here for his fans and fans of the comedy tradition in general. Assuming that Chomet's adaptation faithfully reproduces what Tati wrote, the comedian isn't just not doing Hulot; he's doing someone else. He's doing Charlie Chaplin.
However much Chomet has tinkered with the script, The Illusionist inescapably reflects the influence of Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight on Tati. In Limelight Chaplin is a washed-up vaudevillian who becomes a mentor for a suicidal ballerina. The sixtysomething Chaplin flatters himself enough to imagine the girl having a crush on the old man, whose renunciation in favor of youth takes the indirect form of death on stage at a moment of redemptive triumph. Tati/Chomet strips the Limelight formula of the romance (and the mortality) while adding a City Lights inspired litany of amusing odd jobs for Tatischeff to perform for the girl's sake. Illusionist aims at Chaplinesque pathos in a way Tati never does in his Hulot movies, but achieves something closer to the bleak, self-pitying pathos of Harry Langdon, refusing to offer audiences the uplift of never-say-die perseverance on the metaphorical road of life. It ends, not with the clown-hero's apotheosis, but with utter defeat and the promise of nothing but oblivion for the protagonist. This is a comedy with the moral, "Magicians do not exist." It's so funny I forgot to laugh.
Actually, I laughed quite a bit at the slapstick parts of the picture and the moments of period parody. On top of that, I admired the audacity, impossible to imagine in America, of someone making such a soul-crushing spectacle the subject of an animated cartoon. Better still, The Illusionist is a triumph of old-school line animation, though there are several obvious CGI assists along the way. As an artist, Chomet has made a beautiful film. As an animation director, he has created a wonderful homage to Tati. The cartoon Tatischeff is hardly an exaggeration of Tati's own physical schtick. The real Tati was a tall man with storklike legs and a rocking, off-balance gait. Were he to come to a sudden stop, you'd worry that he'd fall forward on his face. Chomet nails this. The other characters seem artistically rather than generically conceived and realized, as far from Disney as you could want. Whatever Tati's intentions, Chomet turns The Illusionist into a showcase for the narrative power of animation. Because so much of the dialogue is Tati-esque gibberish, Chomet can't depend on the glib jokiness on which even the best American animation relies to keep audiences interested. What I'm getting at is, I'm not sure what people who know nothing about Jacques Tati will get out of Chomet's film -- most likely they'll find it a colossal downer, if an extremely pretty one. But as far as I'm concerned, as a technical and artistic achievement it just knocked Toy Story 3 off the throne I'd put it on. That film is still a tremendous effort in its own right, but The Illusionist is the best animated film of 2010 -- though it has about nil chance of beating the Pixar for the Oscar -- and one of that year's best movies of any kind.