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Triplets of Belleville Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

It's a curious effect of Disney hegemony that, apart from the popularity of Asian animation, animated foreign films rarely find their way to the United States. The elastic nature of animation, especially the modern computer-generated variety, would make them easier to dub, elevating animated films as the most accessible cross-cultural movies since the silent era.

The French-Canadian production The Triplets of Belleville finally fulfills this promise. It is a little gem that carves its own bizarre niche while evoking a century of worldwide animation through its storytelling and creative technique.

The movie opens with a stunning sepia-flavored presentation of the Triplets of Belleville, a trio of French flappers from the '30s who croon their hits to a rambunctious music hall. This scene plays out like the earliest of Disney's Silly Symphonies, with delightful gags that survive more on their energy than their hilarity.

This is also one of the only sequences in the film with dialogue. Belleville features unique sound design constructed among the squeaks and squeals of life, but there is so little dialogue nobody bothered to add subtitles. Writer/director Sylvain Chomet, originally trained as a comic book artist, is such an assured storyteller that it doesn't make a difference.

Modeled after the films of Jacques Tati (and tipping a top hat to him through included footage of "Jour de fête"), Triplets is really concerned with the small Souza family. The matriarch, Madam Souza, discovers that her grandson, Champion, is obsessed with cycling.

The film fast-forwards to modern France, with the Souza house literally beset by Parisian modernization. Champion has become, well, a champion cyclist thanks to the steady tutelage of his workhorse grandmother, who trails Champion around steep Parisian streets. Chomet's gift for inventive, disgusting characterization first shows itself here, as Madam Souza relieves Champion's enormous, throbbing leg muscles with domestic utensils while the family dog Bruno (so fat his legs literally tremble under the weight) pants endlessly.

When Champion poops out during the Tour de France, he is picked up by the box-shaped French Mafia and taken to their hideout, the Center for Wine (motto: "In Vino Veritas") in the city of Belleville. Madam Souza and Bruno must take chase to save Champion.

Their arrival at Belleville presents it as a hallucinatory mixed-megalopolis á la the underrated Babe: Pig in the City. With a little Paris, a little Montreal and a Statue of Liberty with fat rolls, Belleville is the perfect place for the ancient, washed-up Triplets, who take Madam Souza and her dog into their home.

In the world of Triplets of Belleville, the grotesque prevails. Even the athletes and celebrities encountered are freakish caricatures of excess. People are overweight (one boy wears a "I © Fat" t-shirt), overindulgent and overblown.

One memorable scene features an altruistic Boy Scout obnoxiously trying to assist Madam Souza while she feigns blindness. Such setpieces suggest that Chomet's vision seems to be how the French might imagine modern America as a nation of ironically malevolent do-gooders, but the universal nature of Belleville implicates the entire western world. The fans lining the Tour de France racecourse are doing everything but watching the race, smiling like dolls but behaving like animals.

Most of Belleville appears to be hand-drawn, but the film utilizes some impressive, seamless use of digital effects and animation. Chomet and his animators do what most traditionally animated films have failed to do in the past ten years -- they make Belleville a living, breathing place. This vision, twisted as it is, is far more inviting and delicious than any American animated adventure.

The film is occasionally a little too self-aware of its cleverness, particularly in its final act. The climactic car chase is litle more than a succession of physics-defying gags, but it's more enjoyable than the methodic preciousness leading to the Triplets' "Stomp"-like comeback concert.

The Triplets of Belleville is Looney Tunes for the French: at once a celebration of the limitlessness of the painted image and a joyous exercise in ridiculous animated slapstick, seen through the brownish lens of Francophiles who enjoy their animation with a PG-13 rating and a side of frog legs.

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