In the space of a few years, Edinburgh has been the recipient of two cinematic love letters not unlike those composed by Woody Allen for New York. In 2007, its streets and rooftops became a playground for the young hero of David Mackenzie's Hallam Foe. And in The Illusionist, the new animated picture by Sylvain Chomet, the city is a stage on which an almost imperceptible struggle plays out between innocence and experience, reality and enchantment. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is Edinburgh's own Manhattan.
Chomet adapted his script from an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati that was set largely in Prague. Now, it is Edinburgh's maze of malt-smelling streets that becomes home to the wind-beaten magician Tatischeff (christened in honour of Tati's full name and voiced by Jean-Claude Donda - although dialogue is scarce). He arrives in 1959 via Paris, where he has become passé, and London, which has no use for tricks with coloured handkerchiefs when rock'n'roll combos are working a more primal kind of magic on their audiences.
Tatischeff heads for a booking on an island off the west coast of Scotland, and when he moves on to Edinburgh, one of the young islanders, Alice (Eilidh Rankin), tags along and shares digs with him at a tumbledown hotel where the clientele includes a depressed clown and a trio of acrobats. Alice's faith in Tatischeff revives him, but her dependence on his wee miracles also becomes problematic. The woman believes his conjuring feats are real, and it's no easy matter safeguarding the innocence of this doting friend who can't grasp that survival depends on money, rather than magic.
Here the film hits a snag. Either you will be enchanted by Alice, and the idea of Tatischeff struggling to maintain the illusion that the gifts he brings her are summoned miraculously like so many rabbits from a hat. Or you will ask yourself: how does a woman, even one raised on a remote island, get to her late teens without comprehending how life works? There are sheltered upbringings and then there is arrested development. In common with Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, which shied away from the matter of why Bess (Emily Watson) was always gawping at her surroundings, The Illusionist cannot bring itself to address the questions it raises about Alice's naivety.
In other respects, its ellipses and general understatement can only be a refreshing counterpoint to summer blockbuster bombast. Tatischeff and the film itself pay unambiguous homage to their original creator; the magician, with his knack of appearing to be standing upright and stooping simultaneously, is the spit of Tati. And there is a flash of goosebump-inducing alchemy when he enters a cinema that is showing Mon Oncle. Up there on the screen is his live-action double, peering out into the animated world of a film he gave birth to, but never lived to see.
Doffing caps is only part of the picture's reason for being. Just as Tatischeff is becoming an anachronism, so, too, is Chomet's chosen medium - 2D animation, rendered here with an inky roughness that looks more scratched-out than drawn, in subtle colours that seem soaked-in or baked-on. Chomet made an excellent case for the vitality of 2D with his first film, Belleville Rendezvous, but the correspondence in The Illusionist between form and content makes his argument that bit more poignant.
While the film incorporates three-dimensional backgrounds, there are images here which, in their unforced eloquence, expose the corporate slickness of most 3D and computer animation. Sometimes it's merely a matter of infinitesimal changes in light - the hot, grey glow inside a fogged-up taxi cab, or the flapping of pages in a discarded book, reproduced as a restless shadow-bird on the wall.
The film's essence is bound up in Chomet's decision to send Tatischeff to Edinburgh, a place the director imagines as one vast architectural conjuring trick. Its cobblestone streets and alleyways are as slant as any funhouse floor, and its elevated roads seem suspended like high-wires in the misty distance. Whether you have yet to fall in love with the city, or you're waiting to be convinced of the value of 2D animation, The Illusionist will seal the deal.