Frog legs, anyone?
Finding Nemo‘s stiffest competition for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar is The Triplets of Belleville, a mostly hand-drawn, totally beguiling and utterly French feature from graphic novelist Sylvain Chomet. It is a sort of polar opposite of Disney-Pixar’s vibrant, quasi-realistic, squeaky-clean, computer-generated clown-fish adventure. Triplets involves families but does not target the entire family as its focus audience. It is a dark tale populated with distorted people, places and things as well as creepy criminal activity: an ink-drenched tale of childrearing and rescue that involves the Tour de France, the Mafia and a kidnapping.
The film would not play readily as a bedtime book for the kiddies. It does play brilliantly as a haunting and satirical social commentary on French and North American cultures, excesses and corruption, with several jabs with a sharp stick reserved for all things Hollywood. And it is just as funny at times as it is fantastical.
Triplets is nearly speechless. Its few lines of French dialogue are left untranslated, but it is easy to follow, as streams of retro-sensual surrealism shape and drive but do not complicate the story. It is funny in spurts, frightening, moving, magical, exhilarating, horrific, smart and silly. It is all this and more. It is 80 minutes of uncanny, flickering delirium in which trademark elements of Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit films), Jacques Tati (My Uncle), Dave Fleischer (Betty Boop films), co-directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen) and cartoonist Tex Avery are lumped into something very strange and completely different.
The film stars the unlikeliest of heroes: a clubfooted, bespectacled grandmother with a hint of a mustache; an obscenely obese hound dog named Bruno; and a trio of spinster sisters who secure frogs for the supper table (frog soup, frog on a stick, etc.) by slipping a hand grenade into a muddy pond. The Oscar-nominated title song is an infectious melodic orgasm and is harder to shake than a bad radio jingle. And the contours and geometry of the characters and cityscapes are grandly and enjoyably grotesque. One restaurant waiter literally bends over backward to tend to his customers; a muscle massage is given with an egg beater; and musical performances are coaxed from a vacuum, the metal grate shelves inside a refrigerator, a carefully folded newspaper and the spokes of a bike tire.
We are first introduced to the scat-singing title siblings as they share a burlesque stage in their young adult years with Fred Astaire, who is devoured by his own dancing shoes, and with a frantically gyrating, bare-breasted Josephine Baker. The grainy scenario turns out to emanate from the television of Madame Souza, a senior citizen who is raising her grandson Champion in a battered, monolithic clapboard home.
Champion is a lonely, chubby lad with no apparent hobbies until Souza discovers his interest in bicycles. She buys him a tricycle that he immediately embraces, and the film leaps ahead as Souza puts Champion on a rigorous training regime that transforms him into a muscle-knotted world-class cyclist. Champion soon lives up to his name, enters the Tour de France and is kidnapped mid-race by mobsters. Souza and Bruno then give chase in a story bursting with surprises. The two-member posse rents a small foot-pedaled boat and follows a huge ocean liner to the bustling overseas metropolis of Belleville. There they cross paths and are befriended by the now elderly but still very musical triplets and hope to free Champion from his shadowy captors eventually.
The Triplets of Belleville is a highly original, overwhelming, detailed and intoxicating smorgasbord of sights and sounds complemented by a jazzy score. Its cityscapes are stunning, and its characters unique. You are invited into a world of eccentricity where—in the same movie, no less—a man is wedged between a fat woman’s buttocks as she exits and walks from a taxicab, a Django Reinhardt-like guitarist picks with his feet, and a dog dreams in black and white. Computer animation may now be the rage, but Triplets surely reminds us that two-dimensional animation is indeed far from dead.