Appellate Judge Michael Stailey would've turned in this review sooner, but his bicycle got a flat tire.
The power of the human spirit is immeasurable.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville tells the tale of a lifetime. Ironically, this impressionistic masterpiece requires no words of any language to communicate its message of love, loss, devotion, friendship, and life.
Facts of the Case
Young Champion is growing up under the care of his grandmother in the Parisian countryside. He is a lonely boy with few interests and fewer friends. Grandma Souza does everything she can to make him happy. Playing the piano…nothing. Adopting a puppy…nothing. Buying him toys…nothing. The only clue to his happiness is a scrapbook he keeps hidden beneath his bed filled with cycling photos and news clippings. When she gives him a bicycle, suddenly Champion's world comes alive. He rides morning, noon, and night, and still cannot get enough. Grandma seizes the opportunity and channels his energy into a rigorous training program, one that brings to life his greatest dream—a chance to compete in the legendary Tour de France. Unfortunately, Champion's skill and notoriety draws the attention of a criminal element. Kidnapped mid-race, he is secreted away to the island metropolis of Belleville, for nefarious purposes yet unknown. Momentarily taken aback by this strange turn of events, club-footed Madame Souza and her faithful, overweight pooch Bruno fearlessly undertake a harrowing journey to find Champion and bring him home.
Much like young Champion's reaction to his new bicycle, I too have been enchanted…by the magic found in The Triplets of Belleville. Sylvain Chomet has captured the heart and soul of animation—and filmmaking for that matter—and placed it on display for the world to share. I am mesmerized by the near-silent film's energy, emotion, and music. On the rare occasion that dialogue is used, it is often indecipherable to the human ear, inserted only as a means to express the deep feelings of these rich characters.
Madame Souza is a combination of Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) and Marjorie Main's Ma Kettle (The Egg and I). Champion is an idiot savant whose sole focus and purpose in life is cycling. And Bruno is everyone's favorite childhood pet: overfed, under-exercised, and undeniably lovable.
The French-born Chomet, best known for his Academy Award-nominated short The Old Lady and the Pigeons, is a genius. From the opening Max Fleischer-inspired flashback—complete with hilarious homages to Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker—to the film's final heartfelt frame, Belleville's world is a lush, intricately woven tapestry in which not one millimeter of real estate is left undeveloped. Drama, mystery, comedy, satire, and social/political commentary populate its landscape. What's more, every visual element is endowed with a human-esque sentience—from Bruno's eternal conflict with the railways, to Belleville's suffocating embrace of consumerism. Madame Souza and Bruno's ocean voyage alone is enough to showcase the powerful messages animation can convey in the hands of a visionary like Chomet.
Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of Disney's late 1960s and early '70s features such as 101 Dalmatians, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood—interestingly enough, all set in Europe. Belleville's rough-hewn sketchiness and exaggerated characteristics—Madame Souza's club foot, Champion's monstrous calf muscles, the bent-over backwards Maitre'd, the mousey inventor, and the Thug's squared-off shoulders—communicate more about their personalities and their environment than words could ever hope to convey.
This imagery is further enhanced by the seamless, and I mean seamless blending of traditional and computer animation. Where film's such as Disney's Treasure Planet suffer through some of the medium's evolutionary growing pains, Belleville leaps to the forefront with a perfect marriage of art and technology. I challenge you to find all of the instances in which CG models were used to enhance what otherwise appear to be traditionally rendered sequences. One hint: the bonus materials will provide much enlightenment.
Now some of you may be asking yourself—"All right, he's three quarters of the way through his review and no mention of The Triplets. That's the name of the film, right? So, where are they?" Interestingly enough, the girls, who do open the film in the aforementioned flashback, don't resurface until halfway through the picture. But when they do, look out! Imagine the best elements of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and the Little Rascals all rolled into one. These wild and crazy ladies of leisure are a force to be reckoned with, injecting the film with an unbridled zaniness, while providing Madame Souza with friendship, camaraderie, and a renewed sense of hope.
Yet, even with the comic relief the Triplets presence brings, the story belongs to Grandmother and Grandson, and what a truly beautiful story it is.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, The Triplets of Belleville is a feast for the eyes. Its unique visual style, vibrant color palette, and deft exploitation of the art form enable these characters to jump from the screen with a life all their own. The transfer does exhibit somewhat of a granular feel. Whether or not that was Chomet's intention is for him to say. The Dolby 5.1 audio mix is an English dub, lacking the option to play the original French language track. However, given the film's sparing use of any real dialogue makes this a non-issue. What does shine through is Benoit Charest's classically inspired underscore, lending yet another emotional force to propel the adventures of these near silent film stars.
As for the bonus materials, Columbia TriStar provides us with four behind-the-scenes featurettes, an interview with creator Sylvain Chomet, a music video for the Academy Award-nominated song "Belleville Rendez-Vous," and the film's original theatrical trailer. Students and lovers of animation and filmmaking will be absorbed by the discussions with Chomet and art director Evgeni Tomov. The time, passion, and painstaking detail that went into producing Belleville is astonishing, and may well have reclaimed the significance of traditional animated storytelling for an industry convinced that CG is the medium's only future.
In an era where big budget sequels, historical epics, and mind-numbing action films dominate the artistic landscape, it's refreshing to see the reported demise of storytelling in classic animated form has been greatly exaggerated. For all who enjoy compelling stories, fascinating characters, and first class filmmaking, I highly recommend The Triplets of Belleville. This is one adventure you will enjoy time and again.
Sylvain Comet and The Triplets of Belleville are awarded the highest order of accomplishment for storytelling and urged to continue developing more tales to enchant the world.
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• The Cartoon According to Sylvain Chomet
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