"Don't fool with the illusions," warns a magic-shop man, a keeper of thingamabobs and rubber newts. But in "The Escape Artist," director Caleb Deschanel disregards his film's own taboo: He shows us how it's done and we fall under his spell.

In this brilliant and eccentric film, Deschanel, photographic director of "Black Stallion," reunites with that movie's author Melissa ("E.T.") Mathison and its producer Francis Ford Coppola. It's a can't-miss crew, and it doesn't. Deschanel incants and Mathison, with co-author Stephen Zito, enchants us all over again.

Their screenplay is an enigmatic fable, layered with meanings and set in a neverwhen and neverwhere called Harding, a town pulled out of a silk topper and peopled with such mad hatters as Desiderio (Desi) Arnaz as the corrupt Mayor Quinones and Raul Julia as his psychotic son, Stu. It's largely a second-chance cast with the likes of Arnaz, Huntz Hall and Jackie Coogan as the magic-shop man, but led by a new star -- Tatum's baby brother Griffin O'Neal.

They escape and so do we. That's what movies are for, and Deschanel provides the getaway vehicle. Only he's not a cine-magic manipulator like Steven Spielberg; he shows you what he's got up his sleeve. Eyes deceive us, he warns. I am deceiving you, he says. He turns Joan Hackett, as Sybil the Seer, into a mannequin, taking us by the sleight of hand to show us the trick.

Hackett is magic, too, as Danny's psychic aunt, the better half of a worn-out vaudeville act. It's to her and Uncle Burt (Gabriel Dell) that the orphaned Danny makes his first escape, aboard a night train from his grandmother's house.

Danny's dad, the world's greatest escape artist after Houdini, was killed while serving time in the Harding jail. And Danny, haunted both by his father's fate and by his perfection, sets out to avenge and best him, to free himself to become his own man.

This is a film of elusions as well as illusions. The boy, a precocious safecracker and card sharp, also runs away from the bad guys, including the mayor's schizophrenic son Stu, who seems to love and hate the boy at the same time. Stu is a child-in-a-man, befriended and protected by this man-in- a-child. Near the end, he tries to kill Danny on neon-lit, wet streets, splashed with magenta and turquoise paper flowers.

It's a child's garden: The shallow, intimate depth of field reveals a babe's unbiased perspective. There's the delicious feeling of seeing something forbidden, like your parents' room when they are mysterious and you are merely small. And there's poignant music behind unsettled scenes, alien in their '40s clutter, yellowing, hung with proud posters and boxes for sawing women in half.

The dialogue is improbable and, with the wrong talent, might have been preposterous as it skips along the edge of the cuckoo's nest: "You'll disappear like a canary and there'll be a vacancy in the glee club," says Stu, amiably strangling Danny, whom he's hired to crack the mayor's safe in an office that "smells like voters."

"You kill your father," says Stu, "and I'll kill mine." Julia is wonderfully quirky as a weirded-out villain, too sick to send down the river, too mad to befriend, an out- patient manipulated by politicians who are, as we now suspect, the real bad guys. Fakers or fakirs, their images flicker in Deschanel's magic lantern.

He has given us a great escape, leaving us forever captivated by the notions of small boys. THE ESCAPE ARTIST -- At the AMC Academy, K-B Baronet West, K-B Cerberus, K-B Congressional,Old Town, Showcase Bradlick, Showcase Fair City, Showcase Vienna and Tenley Circle.