As a boy living with his grandmother, Danny Masters yearns to follow in his dead father's footsteps to be a great escape artist in the tradition of Harry Houdini. To prove his talents as a magician and to learn more about his father, Danny runs away to find his uncle and aunt, vaudeville survivors who worked with his dad years ago.
The young trickster demonstrates his juggling skills, card tricks and other sleight of hand marvels. His aunt wants him to join them, but his uncle is wary. Then Danny unwittingly gets involved with Stu Quinones, the rich and wayward son of the town's corrupt mayor. After he gains possession of the politician's wallet filled with graft money, Danny has a series of further adventures. He also falls in love with a pretty girl who witnesses one of his scariest escape tricks.
This idiosyncratic film is Caleb Deschanel's first feature film as director; he was the cinematographer for The Black Stallion and Being There. The unspecified time and geographical location of the story give it a dreamy parabolic quality. Griffin O'Neal (son of Ryan, brother of Tatum) is very convincing as Danny. He delights in the world adults call make believe and, with adolescent energy, defies grown-up notions of what is possible. Danny's escape from prison manacles and cell a feat his father could not pull off is his rite of passage into adulthood.
The Escape Artist is essentially a film about sons trying to prove themselves to their fathers. Raul Julia as Stu struggles to define himself in opposition to his powerful dad and loses for lack of imagination. Danny becomes his own man by succeeding where his father failed.