Beautifully composed and incredibly moving, director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) takes animation to a new level through sublime simplicity in The Illusionist, a bittersweet, melancholy tale about a sleight-of-hand illusionist at the end of the vaudeville era, as the performers find themselves becoming obsolete. If there was ever a filmmaker to make the case for a return to silent cinema, it’s Chomet, who adapted the screenplay, which is almost dialogue-less but still stunningly evocative, from one originally written by mime/filmmaker Jacques Tati.

There’s been a flurry of controversy surrounding the film, with a number of conflicting reports over its inspiration. Many claim it was written as Tati’s attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, a child he abandoned as a baby, with some speculating that the film was inspired by his shame and remains the only public recognition of her existence. Not that any of that matters when you’re sitting in a dark theater being carried along on this enchantingly somber ride.

The Illusionist, or L’Illusioniste in Tati and Chomet’s native tongue, is such intimate, delicate filmmaking, it makes Pixar fare look downright garish. Hand animated, the film follows a silver-haired magician whose tricks have grown dusty and quaint, whose rabbit has diva tendencies and whose appeal is quickly evaporating in a world where pop rock is emerging. But when the Illusionist travels to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to perform in a small village pub, he meets Alice, a young girl dazzled by his magical powers, especially when he produces a new pair of shoes for her. Though they don’t speak the same language and have little in common, they forge a tender father-daughter relationship when Alice stows away in his luggage and finds herself in Edinburgh, at a hotel for vaudeville performers, and receiving more and more “magical” gifts procured by the Illusionist not by magic, but by toiling at a series of soul-sucking jobs.

Using music and gentle touches of character instead of eruptions of dialogue, the story unfolds visually, with each slumping shoulder or raised eyebrow conveying what some actors couldn’t articulate in a lifetime. Every frame of The Illusionist feels personal and familiar but somehow transportive as well. With 3-D and computer animation the idea is supposedly to create a more “immersive” experience, but The Illusionist is one of the most disarmingly engrossing films of the year.

Grade: A

The Illusionist releases in select theaters Dec. 25 in L.A. & N.Y.

The Royal - 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025; (310) 477-5581

Landmark Sunshine Cinema - 143 E. Houston St., New York City, 10002; (212) 260-7289

Paris Theatre - 4 W. 58th St., New York City, 10019; (212) 593-4872