The Triplets of Belleville: More Like the Inmates of Bellevue
Animation isn't just Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. It is creative people around the world, applying their talent to their own concerns and heritage. Sylvain Chomet's "The Triplets of Belleville" (2003), produced by his studio Les Armateurs, is one of the more unusual and creative animated features you ever will see. You may not understand it, but you will soak up the images and enjoy them without worrying too much about the narrative. If you do understand what is going on, so much the better, but it isn't really necessary. There is almost no dialog except for an occasional shout or grunt, and the soundtrack is retro-French but with a modern feel.
|What a nice tricycle!|
Madame Souza is an old Portugues woman living in France whose grandson, Champion, wants to become a bicycle racer, so she buys him a tricycle. When he grows up, he becomes a world-class cyclist coached by Souza. He enters the Tour de France, but is kidnapped with a couple of other riders by the French mafia and brought to an American city.
|Singing in their prime|
Souza and Champion's dog, Bruno, follow but soon lose the trail. Souza does find, though, an old French singing act, the Belleville Triplets. They were once famous, but retired long ago. They are still interested in making music, though, and do so with common household implements. They invite Souza to make music with them.
|The bad guys|
The mafia bosses, meanwhile, have drugged Champion and the others. They intend to have them ride stationary bicycles as part of a gambling scheme.
The Triplets and Souza go to a high class French restaurant and perform, using a newspaper, vacuum cleaner and refrigerator as instruments as Bruno looks on. Coincidentally, the mafia bosses bring Champion to the restaurant, and Bruno helps Souza realize that he is present. Souza follows the criminals and locates their hideout. She finds that the gamblers are betting on the riders to see who can keep peddling the longest, with the losers (and probably, ultimately, the winner, too) being shot. The Triplets help Souza to figure out a way to free Champion.
|The Triplets playing on improvised instruments|
As a story, it isn't much, but it isn't supposed to be. The plot is not the point of this exercise, though a few viewings wouldn't hurt in understanding it. In fact, it is when the plot intrudes the most, towards the end, that the film loses pace. The aim is satire and caricature, not necessarily in that order. If you are familiar with the old Al Hirschfeld caricatures for the New York Times and countless other publications, you will have an idea of what to expect.
The opening song, "Belleville Rendez-Vous," sung by the triplets (singing voice by Beatrice Bonifassi, speaking voice Lina Boudreau) in a theater during their prime during the 1930s, is very catchy and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song. It was written by Benoit Charest with lyrics by director Sylvain Chomet and will get you in the proper mood right away. The scenes set in the past are in black and white, with current action in full color.
|An iconic film poster|
The opening, in fact, is the high-point of the film, with caricatured performances in rapid succession of Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Glenn Gould and Fred Astaire (who truly does have happy feet!). The sisters themselves seem to be a take-off on the Andrews Sisters or one of their contemporary sister act competitors (The Lemon Sisters, etc.). Unexpected touches abound, as Chomet lets his mind run wild with exaggerations.
|Tour de France - doesn't it almost have a 3D quality to it?|
While the film has an intentionally weathered look at times, it actually was done digitally, so is is vibrant and precise, the colors exactly what was intended. The animation is hand-drawn with CGI assistance, and the difference between the two is fairly easy to spot. The hand-drawn figures are very fluid and realistic, with the frequent variations from the normal used for comic effect quite nicely and not over-done at all. It isn't subtle, but it isn't overbearing, either.
Hollywood CGI productions have become so polished and precise that the animation people have to be careful to keep their product from becoming too lifelike or they lose their element of fantasy, which is an odd state of affairs. The old hand-drawn ways are in no such danger and still work just fine, though, and "Belleville" is proof. Most current productions also tend to be astonishingly politically correct, and this film is not that way at all, which may give you a jolt. If you are used to a US-centric point of view, something a little French may make you think a bit.
|Bruno, wake up!|
The film is very intense, and can be tough to stay with in one sitting even though it is only 78 minutes. It is much better sampled in chunks that you savor. You can always wash them down with a glass of "Shrek" or a slice of "Toy Story." Films like this are no threat to Disney/Pixar's hegemony, and are simply a way for people who are not in that system to express themselves in their own way, a way which are you perfectly entitled to enjoy.
|The waiter is a brilliant caricature|
Sylvain Chomet went on to do "The Illusionist," which is also an amusing dose of French culture. If you are looking for something a bit different, with an interesting perspective and amusing scenes you won't see in any current Hollywood feature, you might want to try "The Triplets of Belleville."
Below is the original film trailer: