Under director Hannah McGill, Edinburgh International Film Festival has been steadily building its reputation as a platform for great animation - showing the UK premieres of Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up - and this year Toy Story 3 - in a bumper year which includes the world premiere of the hotly tipped 'British Team America': Jackboots on Whitehall. But few films could be better suited to open the festival than Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to the Triplets of Belleville, which seduced audiences the world - the Illusionist, from a Jacques Tati script. For not only does this film deal with the art of illusion and make believe, through a vaudevillian magic act - much like the Presto short which front-ended Ratatouille - but it's a hymn to Scotland and a love song at that.
When James MacGregor wrote on Netribution many years ago that Chomet was set to make a film in his adopted homeland of Scotland, I was a little suspicious that he would take the task seriously. Perhaps like his segment of Paris Je T'aime, it would be a short look at some of the delights of Edinburgh's winding streets and windswept corners. What comes out instead is an unrestrained love letter, capturing the city we've all seen and loved, but going further, flying above the rooftops to give it a twist of magic and delight I've never seen.
The film couldn't be better suited to the festival, indeed in one scene the magician Tatischeff hides in the Cameo cinema - one of the festival venues - and watches a little slice of Tati's Mon Oncle, a knowing wink to the film's origins. In some ways you could see the film as a sister film to Up - perhaps 'Down' would best name it - an old man, close to his end, goes on a journey, accompanied with the optimism of a child. Indeed the theme tune is almost the same and there's an animal side kick to boot.
It is perhaps unfortunate that a dispute regarding the Tati estate should emerge ahead of the film's release, but the information released by the Richard McDonald, the grandson of Tati certainly increases understanding of the film. To realise that the giant of French cinema had himself come from the Parisian music hall, and left a young woman there with his child; that the age of his never-met daughter would have been the same age as Alice in this story when he was writing it - it becomes not just a touching tale of patricarchal care, but a poem from an old man to a young girl as she crosses the threshold to womanhood.
Indeed Tatischeff behaves impeccably, sometimes to the point of silliness - sleeping on the sofa in his age, and creeping off in the middle of the night to take on an extra job so he can buy Alice the pair of shoes, or dress or jacket that she desires. There's certainly no comment on materialism here - his function his largely to conjure, from thin air, the possessions she demands, while she seems solely motivated by getting such things. Still it's the one way they can communicate - with her Gallic and his French - neither subtitled, and leaving the audience with the sense of watching a silent film.