DVD Review of The Triplets Of Belleville

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/17/05


  When The Triplets Of Belleville won the Oscar for best animated film last year I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of its worth as a piece of art. After all, most American animation, considered renascent since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is banal Disneyesque pabulum- at least that mainstream stuff more than 17 people nationwide know about. Don’t even get me started on animé, & how boring, overrated, & predictable most of that is. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I picked up this film’s DVD in a mark down bin at a local video store. What was most striking was how original the animation was- not the warmly glowing American sort, nor the still creakily motioned & melodramatic animé. The film makes considerable use of grotesques & bizarre situations.

  That said, it is not as innovative nor entertaining as its champions like. The 1st major problem with the film is that its doubtlessly strongest part occurs in the 1st few opening minutes where a black & white cartoon ‘documentary’ about the legendary musical triplets presents the viewer with a cornucopia of graces- not the least of which is a terrific mimicry of the cartoon stylings of the 1930s, replete with über-flexible limbs of the characters, which contrasts starkly with the later portrayals of the older, contemporary triplets. Yet, the title of the film is really misleading since the triplets are only supporting characters. The stars of the film are Madame Souza & her fat pooch Bruno- who, early on, we see raising her grandson Champion. The introverted boy’s world is changed for the better when his grandmother 1 day buys him a bicycle- his life now seemingly has purpose, & he trains relentlessly under her watchful guide. The fluidity & passage of time in this early montage is affecting, even as the film is untranslated, for words are not needed to convey most of the action on the film, which is over-the-top in its physicality, yet manifest on an emotional level.

  Champion trains from youth to be a bicyclist, & enters the Tour De France. For unknown reasons he & 2 other bikers are kidnapped by gangsters mid-race to become part of some bizarre & baroque betting scheme based upon the 3 bicyclists reactions to pedaling stationary bikes while looking at projected scenes of the Tour’s countryside. Where this all occurs is across the ocean from France, in some strange Metropolis called Belleville- an almost timeless city that looks sometimes contemporary, sometimes an Art Deco vision of the future from decades past, sometimes modern American metropolis, & sometimes retro-European urban area. The film’s director, Sylvain Chomet, has said Belleville is based upon Paris, New York, & Montreal.

  After learning of her nephew’s disappearance Madame Souza & Bruno take off after the criminals, pursuing them across oceanic tempests to Belleville. In this new place Madame Souza is found living under a Belleville bridge, where she is befriended by the aged triplets, who still tend to croon the film’s signature song years after it was their lone hit. They bring Madame Souza back to their apartment & the grotesque nature of everything in & around the triplets’ world is explored in sometimes grim & disgusting detail. In 1 scene, 1 of the triplets launches an explosive into a lake. Its explosion creates a rain of frogs the triplet catches in a net. The main course tonight will be frog stew. the scenes of the triplets savoring this delicacy is unforgettable- whether in a good way or bad is an open question. Soon, the foursome concoct a plot to rescue Champion, who grows increasingly despairing when 1 of his fellow bikers is killed by the gangsters.

  Yet, his grandmother & Bruno are relentless in pursuit of him. The triplets & Madame Souza infiltrate the gangster hideout, where the bizarre gambling scheme is held, & free Champion. They escape & are pursued by the gangsters in a chase scene reminiscent of the best of the Keystone Kops chases from the silent era. This scene is but the culmination of the film’s unique use of visual art to propel the bulk of the storyline. The human characters are all parodic in appearance. Madame Souza is short, plump, & her Coke bottle eyeglasses emphasize the smallness of her world, & her struggle in it. The triplets are tall, gangly, & almost witch-like in their appearance, while the gangsters are all stereotypes- 1 character being the epitome of a square-shouldered thug. During the chase, especially, all of Belleville distorts even further as we parallax our ‘omniscient view of the metropolis with those of the triplets or Madame Souza. From the earliest moments of the film through its end the viewer is never quite sure whether the reality the bulk of the film portrays is real, a dream, or something being viewed on television by an ‘outer film’. Neither is the gambling scheme by the gangsters, who are vanquished in odd & humorous ways, ever explained. In fact, no explanation is even attempted- it’s just presented as what happens.

  Yet, the film is far too long, at 90 minutes. It could have been greatly heightened by being cut in ½, or preferably to 1/3 its length. It suffers from what much of silent films suffer from, in retrospect. The propulsion of the narrative by broad sweeping gestures is innately heightening, condensing, therefore many of the scenes later on, in the film, become mere recapitulations of earlier scenes whose points were made. Such concision invites imbuement, not explanation, & while the purpose of the tale is never explained, too many needless little bits of exposition are- such as Bruno’s dream, or the montage showing the extended oddities of the triplets, since, just 1 look at them, & 1 instance adequately set them up as weirdos we feel something for.

  Many critics have pointed out that the film has many layers of throwaway references & tweaks- be it comments on Hollywood & organized crime’s financial connections, to pot shots taken at Walt Disney, to homages to obscure cartoon stars of the Great Depression. These may all be true, & heighten the film to its lovers, but to impartial tastes they tend to distract from the overall thrust of the film, which has many virtues- focus not being 1 of them.

  As for the DVD, there are requisite making of films & a commentary, but anyone expecting any deeper explication of the film itself will be disappointed. Yet, that’s a good thing for, flawed as it is, The Triplets Of Belleville deserves accolades for at least trying to be something unique. That it won an Oscar for it is more of a comment on what its competition lacked than what it possessed. Which may be, in retrospect, the very point of Madame Souza’s devotion to her grandson, & why so many people connected with it.

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