Saturday, January 3, 2004

The Triplets of Belleville

An animated movie aimed primarily at adults, The Triplets of Belleville is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. At the same time, it’s as familiar as an old friend you haven’t seen in years. That’s because the emotions of writer/director Sylvain Chômet’s characters are transparent even when their actions are opaque, and the world they inhabit is an amalgamation of parts from our own, most of them old but still good.

Triplets opens with a black-and-white sequence that looks like a scratchy old Max Fleischer cartoon of a newsreel. This invented bit of history turns out to be on a TV that two of the main characters are watching in a Paris suburb in the 1950s. The images in the rest of the movie are anything but scratchy or monochromatic, yet it maintains the feel of an early talkie, with plenty of sound but very little dialogue.

The almost wordless characters are defined by their actions — and by their bodies, which are exaggerated enough to function as sight gags. Champion, a melancholic French orphan who lives with his grandma and grows up to be an obsessive cyclist, is all nose and legs, his torso as thin as his calves and thighs are huge. His unflappable grandma clumps steadily along despite a clubfoot and a wandering eye, which she shoves matter-of-factly back into place when it starts to float, and their dimwitted but loyal dog Bruno skitters along on scrawny legs that tremble beneath his gelatinous bulk. The most abstract of all these stylized figures are a group of gangsters who kidnap Champion. Black rectangles with identical faces, they snap together like Legos, creating a wall of darkness when they stand side by side.

The gangsters smuggle Champion to Belleville. Grandma and Bruno follow, hooking up with the triplets of the title, a trio of beatific music-hall stars who don’t seem to have noticed that their salad days ended decades ago. Together, they save Champion.

The lack of dialogue amps up your awareness of everything else. Just watching Bruno lumber upstairs to bark at a passing train made me laugh louder than I have at a movie in months. Grandma and Bruno’s ocean crossing, which is scored to a Mozart Mass, is eerily beautiful, and Belleville, an Ur-city whose production designer calls it “a baroque combination of Paris, Montreal and New York,” is fun to watch even when nothing much is happening, partly because of the grossly fat people who crowd its sidewalks, as bloated as balloons in the Macy’s parade.

Chômet cites the classics of Disney’s golden age in the 1950s as one of his main influences for animation style, and there’s an implicit nod to those movies in the way Triplets pauses to record little moments like the shadows cast by raindrops sliding down a windowpane. It took five years and scores of people to complete Triplets (stay for the credits to appreciate their numbers — and to savor the movie’s last joke). Uncle Walt would have approved of the care with which the movie was made, but he would have been scandalized by gritty realities like the hookers working the halls of the triplets’ flophouse. Chômet, who started as a comic-book artist, put in a brief stint at Disney, but its production-line style and whitewashed sensibility weren’t for him. “I've never been paid so much to be so useless,” he says.

The director draws all his own characters and works closely with the animators who work on his films. “What I am really interested in,” he told Animation World magazine, “is drawing caricature, how far you can push it, seeing if you can achieve something really strong, almost abstract.” Triplets is his second movie, but it’s the first to augment hand drawings with computer animation. Initially wary of the technique, Chômet warmed up to it when he realized it could, as he says, take care of “all the boring stuff” like vehicles that don’t change as they move, allowing the animators to concentrate on the characters.

The movie’s infectious score ranges from music hall ballads to an acoustic guitar number in the style of Django Reinhardt to a Stomp-like performance by the triplets and Grandma Souza on an assortment of household appliances. Watching four unarmed elderly women take down the French Mafia is a pleasant bit of wish-fulfillment. Watching the same four perform a jazzy little number on newspaper, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and bicycle wheel is even better. Getting both in one 80-minute movie, along with all of Triplets’ other visual and aural treats, is exhilarating.

If you want to feel bad about the state of movies these days, meditate on the fact that Triplets is playing on less than one-tenth as many screens as Disney’s blah Brother Bear. But if you’re looking for good news, think about this: Triplets got a standing ovation at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s been sold to 37 countries so far.

Given the chance, a lot of us clearly love to watch an unfettered imagination at play.