- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

After the prodigious success of “Finding Nemo” last year, it’d be forgivable to assume that computer animation has all but displaced the old school of ink and paper.

Disney did produce the offbeat and surprisingly good “Teacher’s Pet” earlier this month, which blew off a few cobwebs. But “Pet,” for all its cheer and wit, shrivels next to “The Triplets of Belleville,” a compact, often creepy movie crammed with wonderfully grotesque characters and mechanical contraptions, and imagery that harks back to the glory days of Disney animator Winsor MacKay and the silent film era.

Born of the imagination of comic strip writer Sylvain Chomet, “Triplets” is a surreal story world where Fred Astaire is gobbled up by his dancing shoes, frogs are a delicacy and Django Reinhardt’s masterful gypsy-jazz guitar mingles with Mozart’s “Mass in C-minor” and vacuum cleaners double as musical instruments.

Mr. Chomet also sneaks in a few snooty polemical asides here, such as a briefly glimpsed drawing of a bloated Statue of Liberty that didn’t, but may as well have, said, “Give me your rich, fat American masses.” Mr. Chomet is a French expat living in Canada — a double-whammy of woe-is-America snootiness.

Anyway, our first peek at the Triplets, a trio of singing ladies performing at a bawdy vaudevillian revue, comes from the TV set of Madame Souza, a short, plump granny with orthopedic shoes, a pair of mismatched legs and pince-nez that always seem to slip out of place.

The madame lives in a decrepit suburban house, smack-dab against a railway viaduct, with her orphaned grandson Champion, a mopey, sad sack boy with too much baby fat and not enough friends. Desperate to appease Champion — even a puppy, Bruno, fails to satisfy for long — Madame Souza finally springs a tricycle on him. It works.

Skipping ahead a few years, Champion is next seen in a transformed body, lean and wiry. Mr. Chomet gives him a long beak nose and exaggerated bulks of muscularity around his calves, the product of a Tour de France training regimen administered by the taskmaster grandma.

Champion submits to the grueling exercise, but the old anomie seems to have sunk in again; he competes out of fatalism rather than ambition. Mind you, the Champion character never utters a word through the entire movie; neither does Madame Souza (if you don’t count her whistle-blowing). Mr. Chomet expresses their emotions purely through illustration.

Racing in the Tour de France itself, Champion is kidnapped, along with two other cyclists, by a pair of boxily-drawn Mafiosi and shuttled to the teeming megalopolis of Belleville. There, they are pressed into servitude at an underground betting parlor.

Madame Souza and a trail-sniffing Bruno make their way to Belleville to rescue Champion. In one beautifully evocative scene, the trip entails following a gargantuan cargo freighter on a pedal-powered boat.

Once in Belleville, we meet the Triplets again. Now old and impoverished, the trio compassionately takes the madame and dog into its dodgy domicile, giving them chow (frog soup, frog-kabobs and, for dessert, frozen frog-cicles) and a job (in the musical revue).

By the time the rescue operation gets under way, Mr. Chomet settles for a car chase and other shopworn shoot’em-up genre conventions to wrap up his story; but they easily blend into his bizarre-o world. The ending works because “Triplets” is a conjuring of the past as it once existed in American movies.

If such a thing is possible, “The Triplets of Belleville” is a work of cutting-edge nostalgia.

***

TITLE: “The Triplets of Belleville”

RATING: PG-13 (Depictions of nudity and violence; crude humor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet. Produced by Didier Brunner and Paul Cadieux. Production design by Evgeni Tomov. Music by Benoit Charest.

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes, with limited dialogue in French.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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