The Oscars are being awarded tonight, which means that it's a good day to talk about the movies. Last night, Susan and I finally saw The Triplets of Belleville--a French movie we've been planning to watch for a long time--and I'd very highly recommend it. In fact, it's one of the most enthralling movies I've seen in years.
For those of you who don't know, The Triplets of Belleville is an animated film about a boy who dreams of winning the Tour de France, his short and plucky grandmother, a dog named Bruno, and the eccentric trio of scat singers that gives the movie its name. The movie's plot has to do with the sinister plans of the French mafia and the grandmother's efforts to foil them; the dialogue, such as it is, is almost entirely in French. I doubt that anyone will go to see the movie because of the characters, the plot, or the dialogue, however. Instead, the main reason to go see The Triplets of Belleville is to experience the bizarre--and fevered--imagination of Sylvain Chomet, the director and animator who brought the movie to life.
It's nearly impossible to write a description of The Triplets of Belleville that does the movie justice, so instead, I'll give you some disjointed thoughts about it and urge you to see it for yourself. The movie's opening scene features a performance of the title characters, an inexplicably catchy tune, and the indelible image of Fred Astaire being eaten by his own shoes; the scene's tempo is so fast and so quirky that it becomes almost intoxicating in its enthusiasm, before reverting to a series of slower-paced (but endearing) scenes of life in post-war France. It's impossible to pin down exactly where or when the movie takes place: it begins in the era of Josephine Baker and ends in the age of Charles DeGaulle, with lots of scenes in an unnnamed French town and in the title city of Belleville (which looks like a combination of Monte Saint-Michel and 1930s-era New York, but with lots of fat people and stupid boy scouts.) The overall feel of the movie is earthy, bizarre, and even a little creepy.
In a certain sense, The Triplets of Belleville seems like the exact opposite of a movie like Finding Nemo (which I also enjoyed). Finding Nemo feels like it was imagined by a team of talented people who were determined to create the ultimate crowd-pleaser; The Triplets of Belleville feels like one eccentric man sat down and let his imagination run wild. (Its humor is often more muted and always feels quirkier, and whenever I didn't laugh at it, I found myself wondering if there was something wrong with me.) The animation in Chomain's new movie is nowhere near as good as the animation produced by Pixar, but that can be part of its charm: its jerkier sequences seem reminiscent of Steamboat Willie or Betty Boop, and its modest overall style almost made me feel nostalgic about the animated movies I saw in my childhood. That's part of the movie's genius. The Triplets of Belleville evokes memories of everything from the early days of animation to the history of post-war France, containing more character and eccentricity in just a few minutes of screen time than a lot of movies contain in two hours. Then, just when you've gotten used to the movie's low-key style, you come across a scence that's visually stunning.
Part of me feels silly calling this movie last year's most under-rated film--after all, The Triplets of Belleville is now the second highest-rated movie on the Metacritic review site. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that The Triplets of Belleville is the most under-appreciated and over-looked movie in American theaters today. Even when critics praise it, they often treat it as a curiosity, acting as if it's just another cartoon that may entertain you or dazzle you with its creativity, but that isn't very serious or important. In other words, it fills the niche of "wonderful foreign animated film that reviewers will recommend, but that few people will actually see"--the niche that was filled by Spirited Away a year ago. That's a shame. The Triplets of Belleville isn't for everyone, but a lot of people who'd really like it won't get the chance to see it. And no one who watches it will think about paddle-boats or frogs the same way again!
Update: Check out this Sylvain Chomet op-ed piece in The New York Times. Chomet discusses why there's so much bad animation out there, describing one business meeting he experienced at Disney that was "like watching a runaway steam train being driven by a flock of headless chickens."Posted by Ed at February 29, 2004 01:45 PM