Combustible Celluloid
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With: Béatrice Bonifassi, Lina Boudreau, Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Mari-Lou Gauthier, Charles Prévost Linton, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas
Written by: Sylvain Chomet
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for images involving sensuality, violence and crude humor
Running Time: 81
Date: 05/18/2003

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Belleville Rendezvous

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hollywood studios are buzzing that hand-drawn animation just isn't pulling its weight anymore and that everyone ought to switch over to computer animation. Clearly, that's where the real artistry and money is, or so goes the conventional wisdom.

But no one has stopped to think that some of the recent computer animated films, like Finding Nemo, have merely enjoyed better writing and more enthusiastic filmmaking than some of the recent hand-drawn films, such as the clueless Sinbad and the un-involving Brother Bear.

This thinking also fails to take into account terrible computer animated films like Ice Age and excellent hand-drawn films like Spirited Away and the new The Triplets of Belleville.

The latter is an 80-minute feature from France. Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, it's a strange and wonderful tale that relies on and indulges in the luxuries of hand-drawn animation -- though it does sometimes use computer generated images for special effects.

Madame Souza, a diminutive lady with one foot shorter than the other and a little moustache, cannot figure out what would make her little boy Champion happy. She tries a puppy and a train set before she finally realizes that his heart lies in bicycles.

As a young man, Champion rigorously trains for the Tour de France, aided by M. Souza, who follows behind him, chirping encouragement on her whistle, and massages his limbs when they arrive home. After Champion falls asleep, she re-balances his wheels using a miniature Eiffel Tower.

During the race, Champion and two colleagues are kidnapped by a wine magnate and spirited away to Belleville. M. Souza and her faithful dog follow and find help in the form of the aged singing trio, the Triplets of Belleville.

The film opens with a wondrous, fictional film clip -- complete with scratchy, black-and-white film stock -- of the Triplets in their prime, singing a kind of early 20s surrealistic number in delirious three-part harmony. They can still groove well into their old age -- even though they dine solely on frogs.

Over the course of the film, Chomet pays tribute to Jacques Tati, as well as legendary animators Winsor McKay (Gertie the Dinosaur) and Dave Fleischer (Betty Boop), establishing a rich atmosphere so strange and funny that every other moment reveals a new discovery.

During the race, M. Souza follows her son in a van that eventually suffers a flat tire. Chomet has the comic grace to show her suddenly back on the road, chasing after her son, and only revealing the shockingly clever solution to the tire problem after the truck has halted.

Even while winding up the movie with an obligatory rescue/escape/chase scene, Chomet keeps this tone intact.

The film is in French but contains very little dialogue; it's an almost purely visual experience. Unfortunately, very young children should probably not see it. It contains a few adult images including a topless Josephine Baker look-alike.

Like last year's Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville not only breaks new ground in hand-drawn animation, but also heralds the arrival of a new voice. Disney should take note: the reason recent hand-drawn films have failed is not because they're hand-drawn. It's because they're done by committee and take so few chances.

A quick trip to Belleville should hopefully shape them up.

DVD Details: Extras include a commentary track by director Sylvain Chomet over three scenes from the film, a 15-minute "making of" featurette, a second featurette, "The Cartoon According to Sylvain Chomet," a music video and a trailer.

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