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"Triplets of Belleville": From Tour de France to Visual Tour de Force

Sometimes a movie comes along that is just so far out there that it defies description. Puni Puni Poemy for one. If Sylvain Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville does not go quite so far off the deep end, it definitely is a serious curve ball. Nearly unconventional to a fault, this fascinating French animated film lost to Finding Nemo for Best Animated Feature of 2003. Did it suffer with the Academy for its aggressive oddness? Perhaps. What can be said without question is that if the award was given solely on the basis of the most truly creative vision, Triplets would have walked away with the Oscar.

A simple story synopsis would be an inadequate description of Triplets, as its true glory lies in all the astonishing visual details and its quirky nature. The narrative is suggestive of the typical Disney family vehicle, but its realization is anything but. At times violent and gloomy, but often subtle, the film is clearly intended for an adult audience, although more sophisticated children will also find much to enjoy. It is told virtually without dialogue, and instead depends on the enchanting soundtrack and vivid expressiveness of its characters.

The principals are the indomitable Madame Souza, her taciturn teenage grandson Champion, and their obscenely obese dog Bruno. In what appears to be the French countryside of the 1930s, Champion dreams of racing in the Tour de France, and Madame Souza tirelessly serves as his trainer/masseuse/mechanic. Finally the big event arrives, but during the race Champion is kidnapped by mysterious mafia types and put aboard a ship. Madame Souza and Bruno make chase in a handy rental paddleboat (be sure to watch the ending credits for more on this), and follow the ship across the ocean to the New York City-inspired metropolis of Belleville. Here they find allies in a trio of eccentric has-been lounge singers (the titular Triplets) and together concoct a wild scheme to rescue Champion.

Madame Souza is a jovial, pudgy type and lives solely for Champion (no other family is evident). She is far more than a loving grandmother, though. In times of difficulty she proves a clever and resourceful hero of great bravery, at one point facing down a car of gun toting gangsters with nothing more than a shoe. Champion is another matter altogether, seemingly having walked off the set of a Twilight Zone episode. Apparently mired in daydreams for the duration, he manages to be less emotive than Stallone and simplemindedly pursues tasks as if he were the four-legged companion. The film asks us to sympathize with his imprisonment, but quite frankly one wonders if he has any idea where he is. Bruno is playful and fiercely loyal, and oddly enough may be the character we come to know best via a series of surreal dream sequences that allow us a look inside his mind. The Triplets are a bizarre lot, bringing to mind a sisterhood of kindhearted witches, an image reinforced by their vast repertoire of frog-based cuisine.

All of the above is depicted in the most bizarre, surreal manner imaginable. This is a film that is all about the experience. The wacky tapestry woven by the French and British animators manages to astound and perplex from beginning to end. The animation, a mix of cel and CGI, may be a bit simpler than the usual Disney fare, but the design work is truly extraordinary. Madame Souza’s squat frame and bulging eyes are evocative of a bullfrog, though thankfully the triplets don’t pick up on this. Champion is a freakish bird-like creation with a spindly frame, massive calves, huge eyes, and a long, narrow beak of a nose. The mobsters are great, hulking creatures whose shoulders tower way above their head and form a perfect rectangle when viewed from behind. The denizens of Belleville are varied, but most striking are the massively obese individuals who lumber about in what some have said is a thinly veiled commentary on American eating habits. The backdrops to the action are also quite impressive. The great swells of the dark, turbulent ocean are reminiscent of A Perfect Storm, and the stylized, towering skyscrapers of Belleville have a bit of Metropolis to them. Perhaps the film’s visual pièce de résistance comes in Bruno’s wacky CG heavy dreams revolving around his obsession with trains, including one in which the train’s passengers bark at him instead of vice versa.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the films’ compelling musical score, especially the song “Belleville Rendezvous,” which was also nominated for an Oscar. The jaunty, jazzy songs are strongly suggestive of the time period and are delightfully creative, particularly the number the Triplets play using a refrigerator, newspaper, and vacuum cleaner as instrumentation. The songs are balanced by classical themes, including a movingly somber piece played over the tempestuous ocean crossing as the huge waves thrash about the lonely little boat.

The special features on the DVD include the theatrical trailer, commentaries on three scenes, a couple of making-of featurettes, and a music video for “Belleville Rendezvous.” Of these, the featurettes are an interesting, if brief, look at how the film’s unique animation was achieved. I was astonished to find that the characters, which look every bit to be cel creatures, were animated with hefty amounts of computer work. Chomet explains how he had the animators physically act out their characters’ actions to help visualize how they should be drawn. I’d like to see the junkie they had stand in for Champion.

Even for those animation fans who think they’ve seen it all, Triplets of Belleville is a voyage that manages to amaze and surprise throughout. Those weaned on Disney fare may be a bit put off by its surreal and sometimes dark nature, but this is a plunge well worth taking. If this brilliant display of Mr. Chomet’s imagination is anything to judge by, we can expect further Oscar offerings from him in the future.

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