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Remember when cartoons weren't afraid to be cartoons? The likes of Pixar and Dreamworks have revolutionized animation over the past 15 years; the former not only through its visuals, but its storytelling ambition. The polish of "Up" or "The Incredibles" lends to their appeal. Elementally, though, the viewer can sense that the digitally born wonders onscreen are literally untouched by human hands. They are wholly synthetic creations in which anything like a flourish must first be measured and calculated. You still cannot hug a pixel.
Then we have a tone poem such as "The Illusionist" ("L'illusionnist," en Français). The hand at work here is the same as in "The Triplets of Belleville," directed by Sylvain Chomet and Oscar-nominated in 2003, as "The Illusionist" is now, for Best Animated Feature. Also like its predecessor, "The Illusionist" tells the story of aging performers finding hardship in a modernizing world, and unfolds almost entirely sans dialogue. No subtitles here: The flitting ribbons of French that trail through the movie are as disposable as the smatterings of mumbled English. The animation of expression, of nature, of movement and particularly of animals is enthralling, evocative of graphite and watercolors. This is cartooning absent sass, lovingly drawn and painted — a children's picture book in motion.
An older magician, long in face and nimble in hand, finds himself scraping for work as the music halls of midcentury come to book rock acts. When he travels to a small Scottish isle for a gig at a village pub, he befriends a girl who insists on following him back to Edinburgh. There they split a hotel apartment — she in the bedroom, he crashing on the couch each night — and try to find their way through the city as he struggles to put sausage on the table and to pull the occasional coin from behind her ear.
Without much to say to one another, the illusionist and the girl don't give the audience many deep glimpses into their relationship, and we're left to assume that what they do share is mostly unspoken. She would have languished indefinitely on the isle, and he, while clearly losing his gusto for magic, has pulled off the trick of giving her a chance to imagine a richer life. The most memorable bit players here are the hard-luck vaudevillians who also inhabit the hotel: a morose clown, a ventriloquist whose only friend is his lookalike dummy. Theirs is a shared story of the most pitiable loneliness, that of abandoned people whose sole aim was to bring joy to others.
For the youngest children, accustomed to a heavier hand in explaining a story to them, "The Illusionist" may be a test of patience. But for those who can follow lighter brushstrokes, it may linger longer than the latest "Shrek" sequel.