January 28, 2011 at 1:00 am

Review: Quirky cartoon 'The illusionist' is delightful

“The Illusionist” features an aging magician who befriends a young girl. (Sony Pictures Classics)

There are no 3-D effects, no lovable monsters, no memorable songs or cute tykes. Heck, there's hardly any real dialogue.

But the Oscar-nominated "The Illusionist" is animation of the finest kind. A French import that's long on grace notes and wry humor, it eschews flash and opts for heart to great effect.

At the beginning, we are introduced to the Illusionist, a performer who pulls a troublesome rabbit out of his hat, performs mystifying card tricks and generally seems an old — and old school— trouper, traveling about Europe playing everything from music halls to rock shows and weddings.

At one such wedding, he dazzles a drunken Scotsman, which leads to a trip to a remote Scottish village where he performs in a rustic pub. While there, he befriends a lowly cleaning girl, buying her a new pair of shoes.

When he leaves Scotland, the cleaning girl stows away and travels with him. Eventually, she's discovered and he befriends her again, sharing the apartment he rents in a vaudeville hotel filled with eccentric performers.

He has opened up a whole new world to her; it's a world she wants to revel in, and reveling can be costly. He takes up odd jobs so he can buy her things. But in the end, he is an old man, and she is a young girl.Director Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville"), adapting a story by Jacques Tati, doesn't try to avoid the sentiment inherent in all this, but he does spice things up with a colorful array of goofy characters — a foppish rock band, a lonely clown, an upbeat trio of gymnasts — while letting his central characters become more and more real.

We Americans expect dazzle from cartoons; "The Illusionist" trusts in story and connections and quirks that delight even in a tale that aches. This is such sweet cinema.

'The Illusionist'

GRADE: A-

Rated PG: For thematic elements and smoking

Running time: 80 minutes

tlong@detnews.com

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