Triplets of Belleville

The eye-candy movie of the year has arrived, which is fitting since the film has virtually no dialogue whatsoever. Directed by Silvain Chomet with animators in Paris, Belgium, and Quebec, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) is an eccentric and sprawling adventure that begins in a nostalgic, mid-century Paris and progresses to a mythical metropolis, mixing endearing characters with bits of dark humor, foot-tapping jazz, and a hodgepodge of film genres (home dramas, sports movies, fantasy quests, and gangster films, for starters).

While the film’s humor has a more sardonic edge to it (it’s not geared for younger children), the movie never descends into cynicism. Its characters are dedicated and loving, and challenge heroic stereotypes–the protagonists include an old lady with a shortened leg, a fat dog, and three aged singers.

In many ways, the film is a tribute to Jacques Tati; not only does the poster for Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) conspiciously appear on a background in one scene, but the movie even incorporates a bicycling clip from Jour de fÍte (1949). But if the film’s elaborate soundtrack, wordless communication, pantomime, and physical gags make it a fitting tribute to the master French comedian, it espouces a markedly different view of technology. While Tati’s films express the chaos and absurdity of the modern world with all its confounding tools and gadgets, Triplets suggests its heroes succeed whenever they appropriate objects and invent new uses for them. Whether it’s tuning bicycle wheels, fixing flat tires, or participating in impromptu jam sessions with old newspapers, wire racks, and a whooping vacuum cleaner (the spirit of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt also permeates the film), the characters in this film delight in material objects and their unending value.

The 78-minute film took five years to produce, which is double the efficiency it took Chomet to finish his previous Oscar-nominated short film, The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1997), a ten-year project that cemented his reputation as an up-and-coming animator to keep an eye on. Triplets is Chomet’s highly sophisticated and enjoyable feature debut, combining caricatured 2D and CGI animation, but I must admit that I preferred the idiosyncratic settings and characters of the film’s first two-thirds more than I did the conventional gangster elements toward the end. The finale’s action is cleverly paced and as entertaining as anything in a Pixar film, but I guess I’ve seen one too many car chases in my life to glean a lot of thrills from them anymore. The film works best when it merely observes the relationships between its characters or embellishes its imaginative settings with a sense of grandeur. Virtually every shot in the film is astonishing in its pictorial beauty.

Speaking of Pixar and the Oscars, Sony is clearly hoping Triplets will receive the sort of “surprise” acclaim Spirited Away received last year, perhaps enough to beat Finding Nemo at the Academy Awards. But given the new animation category’s track record of only nominating films which 1) perform well at the box office and 2) are geared towards children, I’d say the jury is still out on that possibility. But a couple of Oscar nods towards this film and Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress wouldn’t get any complaints from me.

Check out the trailer for a more tantalizing peek.