The Illusionist



Alice in The Illusionist.

Screenwriter-director Sylvain Chomet chose to go the old-school route when he adapted French comedy legend Jacques Tati's previously unmade script into an animated feature.

The creator of the wonderful The Triplets of Belleville harnessed a small army of animators to hand-draw much of the film, frame by frame. The production team had to hunt high and low for artists with the requisite drawing skills, computer generated images having made many such animators redundant or, at least, forced them underground.

The tortuous creative process paid off. The Illusionist (opening January 28) is a work of art you could hang on the wall. It's a lovely film to look at, with its vivid, romantic imagery of fifties Scotland, especially of Edinburgh where most of the action is set. There's a fluid movement to detail work, such as the movement of the magician's large, long-fingered hands or a crowd of people in a street.

The main drawback is that the story is slight and there's a sense that perhaps more substance could have been added to Tati's melancholy ode to the passing era of Music Hall entertainment.

At the centre of the film is an old Jacques Tati-esque illusionist who has discovered there is waning interest for his sleight of hand tricks in the new era of cinema and rock 'n' roll.

In his quest for greener pastures, the gangly, ageing magician quits Paris for London and ends up performing in Scotland's rugged Western Isles. In that windswept Scottish hinterland, evocatively rendered in misty, hilly landscapes, he is adopted by a naive, young Scottish girl who fully believes in his magical powers and follows him to Edinburgh. The two stay in a lowly hotel occupied by washed-up performers and as the old man struggles to please his number one fan, they learn about the shallowness of material trappings.

As with The Triplets of Belleville, there is little dialogue spoken. People do more grunting and muttering, barely comprehensibly in French, Gaelic or English. The story unwinds at a gentle pace with its subtle, nostalgic tone punctuated with the kind of amusing slapstick sequences you might find in old black-and-white comedies. There's a playfulness to the film, while the central theme – being careful about keeping up appearances – could be directed at both adults and kids.

But there's also a dark side to the vision that comes out in the visual humour involving a drunken Scotsman, namby-pamby rock stars, a gang of thuggish school kids and my favourite, the magician's demonic rabbit.

The original script was actually set in Prague, but Chomet was so impressed by the changing light in Edinburgh that he set up base in the Scottish capital to make the film. His team have done a brilliant job capturing the changing hues, the up-and-down landscape and the mystique of the UNESCO World Heritage city from the tumble of domes and steeples of the skyline to the smoke-fogged interiors of fifties train carriages. With its beautiful visuals and tender, melancholic centre, this gentle comedy is a rare family treat.

Also, look out for the latest movie from Mike Leigh, Brit master of the soulful, melancholy movie. In Another Year, he explores suburban unhappiness (from January 21).

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike He writes at

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