*The Triplets of Belleville (PG-13)
Sony Picture Classics
You don't have to be an animaniac, a Francophile or a freedom-frying Francophobe to appreciate Sylvain Chomet's first feature, The Triplets of Belleville. You just have to know that animated dogs with huge asses are inherently funny -- as are: septuagenarian triplets who love nothing better than a frog feast, and a prosthetic shoe-wearing Granny bent on fighting gangsters.
Not many animated features find their way to independent theaters and often it's for good reason. Recall Bill Plympton's The Tune, which featured some inventive animation but served little purpose beyond promoting the animation of Bill Plympton.
Fortunately, this is not the case with The Triplets of Belleville. Chomet's animation is dark, almost macabre, with richly textured cityscapes that keep your eyes scanning for hidden details. Chomet's aesthetic for people favors the grotesque: women are obese to the point where one rich biddy loses her husband in a crevice I'll leave to your imagination. Men are either effete toothpicks, or rectangular drones. Perhaps to compensate for his dreary representation of humanity, Chomet affords sad puppy-dog eyes to the characters he wants us to care for. And care we do, even if their lives are dictated by ridiculous routines.
Triplets' plot is simple: A boy known only as Champion has grown up in a small, quickly urbanizing French town with his doting grandmother, Madame Souza, and Bruno, a dog obsessed with barking at trains. Champion grows into a professional cyclist with bulging calves hilariously disproportioned to his emaciated torso and a mouth ever panting for air. Bruno grows ridiculously plump, while Madame Souza remains bent on training her grandson for the Tour de France.
Trouble begins when Champion is kidnapped by a gaggle of shady mobsters. Taken across the ocean to Belleville, a parody of New York complete with a bovine lady liberty, he finds himself peddling as a cycling slave in a nefarious gambling den. Meanwhile, Madame Souza and Bruno are instantly dedicated to his rescue. None of this makes that much sense, but the animation is so enjoyable that it quashes any impulse to mine for inconsistencies.
Though Triplets is a French-language film, it contains no subtitles because there's almost no dialogue. The soundtrack consists mostly of effects, the odd squawk, bark and cackle, and a toe-tapping theme (Belleville Rendezvous) that's been nominated for an Oscar.
Triplets' carefully plotted high jinks are reminiscent of the Wallace and Gromit shorts by British animator Nick Park, as well as the madcap antics of the grand pere of French slapstick, Jacques Tati.
Bruno and Madame Souza find themselves in many stressful situations, but they remain cool and focused. The same can also be said for the Triplets, who rescue the dog-woman duo, and ultimately abet them in their plot to free Champion.
It's hard to explain why Triplets is so delightful through a plot summary. What makes it work is the interplay between visually complex animation and a simple plot line. Jokes are repeated and become funnier, like Bruno's train obsession and his nightly ritual of parking his gynormous posterior on top of his master's head.
The tweaked out physical attributes of Triplets' characters also heighten the hilarity, while giving the film a look that's uniquely its own. The film is unquestionably dark, but its silly characters lead lives that are nothing if not routine. The famous Triplets, for instance, are only too happy to feast on the frogs (and tadpoles!) they explode out of a nearby swamp and then howl in bed at bad television.
What's not to like in The Triplets of Bellville? Wacky dogs, madcap antics, great music. While it might not be fun for the whole family (there's a PG-13 rating for vulgarity), it's certainly a French product whose merits can unite uni- and multilateralists alike.
-- John Dicker
Kimball's Twin Peak