‘Belleville’ Delightfully Bizarre and Original

by Andrew Williams
Columnist

You will never see another animated film quite like Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.” It is grotesque, funny, spooky, charming, tender, magical and absolutely one-of-a-kind.

His first feature-length cartoon, this film was released by the French-born animator in 2003 to widespread critical acclaim. It went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, though it ultimately lost to “Finding Nemo.” I personally think it should have won.

The movie opens in France, where a small boy lives with his grandmother in a narrow, crooked house by a busy train track. Noticing how lonely the boy looks, the old woman tries to cheer him up by giving him a puppy named Bruno. But the boy remains despondent.

One day the grandmother discovers the boy’s dream of becoming a great cyclist, and she gives him first a tricycle and then a bike. Happy once again, the boy grows up to become a world-famous bicycle racer. However, when he enters the Tour de France, two mafia henchmen kidnap him and bring him overseas to Belleville, a bustling metropolis located somewhere in America.

With the aid of Bruno’s nose, the grandmother follows them. She learns that the thugs plan to use her grandson in a bizarre underground gambling operation, but finds that she can only rescue him with help from three eccentric old ladies who had once been music hall stars in the 1920s. Together they infiltrate the operation, and comedy and mayhem ensues.

I should mention that almost no dialogue is spoken through all of this. Instead, Chomet tells the story almost entirely through visual means, which of course is the real beauty of animation. Oddly enough, the film’s rough look actually reminded me a little of Silver Age Disney animation, which thrilled me immensely. In this day and age where computers all but dominate, I am always excited to see old-school techniques used again.

Chomet’s drawing style is haunting in a comic way. He gives his characters hilariously exaggerated features and mannerisms, turning them into grotesque caricatures. One character looks and behaves exactly like a mouse. A doting waiter bends about like a piece of straw. Chomet even pokes fun at Americans by portraying them all as morbidly obese.

The movie revels in its outrageous sense of humor, much of which revolves around the antics of the triplets. After one of the old ladies goes fishing for frogs with a stick of dynamite, we find that one of the exploded frogs has miraculously survived when it suddenly hops off a plate in a desperate search for freedom. Somehow we take it all in stride because the movie never aims to shock but simply sweeps us up in its dark comic vision.

And yet, underneath, the film possesses a tenderness that makes it oddly endearing. The opening scenes that introduce the boy and his grandmother play out with a kind of soft poetry as she does everything she can to make her grandson happy again. When he gets kidnapped, she doggedly pursues his captors to the end, even if it means crossing an entire ocean in a pedal boat.

Animated films, especially American ones, have a tendency to rush through their scenes to get to the action, but Chomet takes the time to meditate on the relationship between his characters. That he portrays it all visually only richens the experience. Dialogue would have ruined the effect.

“The Triplets of Belleville” will not appeal to everyone, but everyone can appreciate the remarkable thing Chomet has accomplished, which was to create a work of startling originality when the animation industry needed it most. I heartily look forward to his next film and nominee for this year’s Best Animated Feature, “The Illusionist.” Stay tuned!

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