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By Admin | February 9, 2004

Hang on to your head.
Sylvain Chomet’s magical, mysterious and mind expanding feature debut will send it spinning like a top into space if you’re not careful. There are high powered opiates that don’t pack the psychedelic kick of this cartoon.
“The Triplets of Belleville” is the breathtakingly inventive story of an old clubfooted Portuguese woman who trains her grandson for the Tour de France and then crosses the Atlantic by pedal boat to rescue him after he’s kidnapped by rectangular mobsters. The film is done in a variety of visual styles with the delirious opening moments offering a masterful homage to 30s Disney toons as well as the work of legendary animators like Tex Avery and Dave Fleischer, the creator of Betty Boop.
The sequence, which is in black and white, introduces the titular trio, a famous music hall singing act. The music itself is an infectious, toe-tapping amalgam of influences. Don’t jump up and commence dancing right away though. You might miss the animated Django Reinhardt and Josephine Baker. Fred Astaire attempts to cut a rug but his shoes, it turns out, are killing him. Literally.
The rest of the movie is in color but not the playful rainbow palette of Pixar or present day Disney. The first half takes place in France, where the villages and countryside are beautiful but muted. The second is set in Belleville, a land of overstuffed, pillowy people clearly intended as a parody of the States. The metropolis Chomet conjures is a lurid, elongated shadowland of alleys, industrial waterfronts and infested tenements.
Many decades have passed between the Triplets’ opening performance and the arrival in Belleville of Madame Souza along with her plump pooch, Bruno. Surrounded by mementos of their heyday, the three live together blissfully in a roach-ridden hovel and dine on frogs harvested from a nearby marsh with the help of WWI-era hand grenades. Following a fateful encounter, they take in the old woman and her dog and assist the pair in locating the place where the missing cyclist is being held captive by members of the French Mafia.
You are gathering, no doubt, that we aren’t talking “Finding Nemo” here. First of all, this is an animated movie which has not been made for children. OK, if David Lynch and Anne Rice reproduced, maybe. Otherwise, this is not for the PG crowd. In addition to its atmosphere of ennui and despair, Triplets is characterized by humor that is crude, back stories that are sad, scenarios that are adult and behavior that is jarringly violent. The film includes one of the most cold blooded murders I’ve ever seen in a movie, never mind an animated one.
The 40-year-old French animator and comic strip creator has fashioned a work of unbridled imagination which pays tribute to Keaton, Chaplin and Tati while achieving a style and sensibility completely its own. Hand-drawn animation is combined with computer generated images to glorious effect matched in unhinged loveliness by Benoit Charest’s score. The writing is devilishly, dementedly clever and repeated viewing is highly recommended. I’ve made gratifying discoveries each time I’ve watched it and I’m currently on my tenth (no, I haven’t chained myself to a theater seat. I’m fortunate to have been sent an awards screener). Jam-packed with surreal visual humor, Chomet’s picture has more fun stuff going on in the corner of a given frame than most Hollywood comedies have in their trailers. A further measure of the filmmaker’s genius: The ambient sound in “The Triplets of Belleville” is more compelling than most movies’ dialogue.
Did I mention the movie doesn’t have dialogue?
Nominated for an Oscar in 1998 for the short “The Old Lady and the Pigeons,” Chomet finds himself up for an award in the category of Best Animated Feature. What’s truly surreal is the fact that he isn’t going to win. Of course, he didn’t make the best animated film of 2003. He made one of the best of all time.
Up next for the writer-director? The animated drama “Barbacoa” due in 2005. In the film, Prussian troops lay siege to Paris and a veterinarian at the great city’s zoo fights to save a monkey and other animals from hordes of hungry children.
Sounds like another one I’ll be seeing without the kids.
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