The Triplets of Belleville

There is very little cuteness on display in The Triplets of Belleville. There are no celebrity voices, no tearjerking musical numbers, no wiseacre sidekicks or scenery-chewing villains. In short, it bears little resemblance to the majority of animated films to which American audiences are usually exposed. Writer/director Sylvain Chomet has produced, instead, a dizzy feast of ragged, demented eccentricity that breathes life back into (animates, perhaps?) a genre that has become, over that past decade or so, a pandering technology showcase sanitized by the influence of big market forces.

The DVD releases of most “animated features” nowadays contain a whole host of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which typically depict teams of well-scrubbed young hipsters hunched over computers attempting painstakingly to render a character or location in three pristine dimensions. Admirable though their efforts are, these teams of knob-twiddlers, with all their retracing of ghostly contoured objects rotating on their monitors, tend to lend the films they work on a sheen of slickness and anonymity. Although the finished films are often entertaining, it is hard to view them as anything but committee-created merchandising tie-ins.

What a joy, then, to come across the delightful mess that is The Triplets of Belleville, a film whose action figurines, if they existed, would have to include a tiny old lady with a club foot and a loose glass eye; an aged, obese dog; a sad-eyed Tour de France cyclist whose upper body is spaghetti thin but whose thigh muscles are like tree trunks; and three grotesque but kindly old crones in fur coats. A description of the film’s plot, while reductive, may go some way toward conveying its charms. The aforementioned tiny old lady gives her chubby little grandson a bicycle; years later he has grown up to become an accomplished cyclist. When the cyclist is kidnapped by nefarious winemakers in the midst of the Tour de France, his grandmother and her cantankerous old dog embark on a mission to get him back, aided in their quest by a tall, geriatric trio of former music hall stars. (Any resemblance to the plot of Finding Nemo are, needless to say, purely coincidental.) The search leads them from their rural home across a rolling ocean to the massive city of Belleville: a pulsating hybrid of Paris, Toontown, Montreal, and New York (the latter especially evident in the corpulence of the city’s hamburger-swilling denizens).

The film opens with a wonderful homage to the head-bobbing surrealism of Max Fleischer’s musical cartoons: a musical number incorporating the likes of Django Reinhart, Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire, which is then revealed as being a cartoon within a cartoon. The aesthetic of the rest of The Triplets of Belleville is hard to pin down, but it is most reminiscent of the New Yorker cartoons of George Booth, with all their threadbare apartments lit by bare hanging bulbs, and populated by mangy dogs and their mangier owners. The film is almost completely without dialogue—on the rare occasion when a character actually speaks, the speech is a garbled nonsense a little like the speech of the adult characters in the old Peanuts TV specials. Much of the story unfolds with the careful, deliberate pacing of the best silent films, and the action ranges from kitchen sink realism to outlandish fantasy, all leading up to one of the funniest car chase scenes since Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc?

The end credits reveal The Triplets of Belleville to have been every bit as much a team effort (incorporating a good deal of digital animation, in fact) as the major releases from studios like Disney and Pixar, but it is to the film’s credit that it feels like the product of a single artist. Watching the film, it is easy to imagine a behind-the-scenes documentary in which a wine-soaked Frenchman in a cramped apartment hand-scrawls individual frames with Gauloise-stained fingers, using an ink whose fumes gradually warp the mind. The Triplets of Belleville is a heartening reminder for viewers of all ages (the film is suitable for children, aside from a brief flash of non-sexual nudity and a few menacing kidnap scenes) of all the creativity that gets squeezed out when a group of bottom-line-minded Disney executives puts their heads together.

– Ben Stephens