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The Triplets Of Belleville (PG-13) (2003)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Producer: Didier Brunner, Paul Cadieux

Written by: Sylvain Chomet

Cast: the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas

Rating: out of 5

The extravagantly trivial The Triplets Of Belleville sets out to pay tribute to its polar influences as announced in the end credits, the films of Jacques Tati and the cartoons of Albert Dubout. Unfortunately, though Sylvain Chomet nails Dubout’s caricatures and Tati’s pratfalls, this French-Belgian-Canadian-British co-production (with some sub-contracting animation done in Riga, Latvia) ultimately succeeds only in proving how hard it is to do feature-length animation outside the US and Japan.

Belleville is suffused with a pre-World-War II nostalgia even without Tati and Dubout’s guiding spirits, opening with a ’30s newsreel where the titular sisters croon on-stage with Fred Astaire, as Django Reinhardt plays in the orchestra pit (the exception to the anachronistic references is an inexplicable but very funny caricature of famed Bach interpreter Glenn Gould on a TV, which actually manages to briefly extend the frame of reference to the early ’80s). The triplets sing nonsense syllables, Astaire gets eaten by his cannibalistic shoes, a black chick comes out in a brilliant parody of those idiotic pseudo-“African” dances that used to clog art movies, and then the newsreel is broken up by TV static, to the disappointment of the old woman watching it. Technology continues to play a villainous or annoying role throughout the film, but it’s impossible to attribute a coherent anti-modernization/technology agenda to the film, partly because its blend of CGI and traditional animation is some of the most sophisticated yet seen and partly because the film doesn’t seem to have a single thing on its mind beyond the gag of the immediate moment.

In lieu of a logically paced story, Belleville jerkily follows a young boy who lives in gloom until he’s given a bicycle. The plump boy grows to be a ridiculously lean lad with absurdist leg muscles that look like buttocks and one of those aquiline Gallic noses that’s twice as long as his chin, riding up steep hills at all hours with his aunt following him, keeping time on a whistle. The biker is subsequently kidnapped by sinister men in black coats (no, really), and the aunt and dog Bruno follow to effect a rescue.

Story, obviously, is not a major concern. The visuals are. The tribute to Dubout is expert and detailed, as a glut of French grotesques come to life (even a crosswalk signal boasts a fat man with a pipe), and the blend of CGI and traditional cel animation is as sophisticated as anything produced in America or Japan. But form doesn’t match content: Possibly Belleville’s most majestic moment comes on a stormy ocean, as Mozart’s Requiem plays over awesomely rendered waves. But the whole section is a joke, ending with a gag about using a whale as a moving sidewalk, and the movie’s consistent devotion to the trivialization of the potentially moving grows wearisome.

Much has been made of Belleville’s alleged weirdness, from its caricatures to its dream sequences (awarded to a dog), but it’s all the kind of pre-fab quirkiness that Amelie-enamored audiences have come to expect. What’s really weird is the physics, especially in the climactic chase (the slowest this side of Undercover Brother’s golf cart chase): Cars flip and explode in accordance with neither the laws of real physics nor the well-established principles of Warner Brothers cartoons, but some queasy, indeterminate other universe. There’s a weird arbitrariness to the gags which robs them of their potential humor, and that’s what ultimately robs Belleville of any real impact. It’s diverting and plenty quirky, but it doesn’t seem to know why it’s doing what it does or why it’s expending so much effort on so little.

—Vadim Rizov

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