The Triplets of Belleville (review)

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Words Fail

(Best of 2003)

You simply can’t imagine how weird and wonderful and lovely this film is. I can go on and on about its odd beauty, how it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and at the same time like a recurring dream you can always just barely remember when you wake up, and still you’ll be astonished by it. Because words fail. The Triplets of Belleville must be experienced. I could not truly convey what it’s like to laze in its saucy, sweet otherworldliness if I sat here for hours trying to find a precise turn of phrase.

But I’ll try.

You can get a taste of it from the trailer, but even that quick-cut two-minute condensation doesn’t do it justice, because the film unfolds slowly, like a revelation, like a found treasure that mustn’t be rushed. And you’re glad that its creator, Sylvain Chomet, in his first animated feature, took his leisurely time — you want to drink in and savor every peculiar face, fond caricatures all, and every fantastical neighborhood we travel through, they’re all so unexpected and delightful.

A film like Triplets can’t help but point out how creatively bankrupt animation outfits like Disney or DreamWorks have become, locked into tired formulas that even they seem bored with — has there recently been a less inspired animated film than Brother Bear? But there’s nothing formulaic about Triplets. Oh, it’s about a boy and his dog, sure, but that’s about the extent of anything that could even remotely be called cliché, because the boy, named Champion, has an all-consuming obsession with bicycling and the dog, Bruno, has strange dreams about the merry-go-round of his doggy life, dictated by schedules beyond his control: of Champion’s exercise routine, of the regular trains that run past their house, trains at which it is his self-appointed job to bark. And there’s Champion’s grandmother, Madame Souza, who hits the road with Bruno when Champion is kidnapped right from the middle of the Tour de France by two enigmatic MIBs, following Champion’s trail over the sea to the city of Belleville, where she falls in with a retired trio of singing spinster sisters, the titular triplets.

But it’s not even its unlikely and original story — and that’s just the beginning of it — that makes the film so indescribably unique. It’s the whole package deal of fantasy metropolises, dream versions of Paris and New York drawn like something you’d find in a classic and especially charming comic book, and song and dance and bizarre humor and tender affections and mythical mysteriousness. It’s like the Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire and Tim Burton and the people who make romantic, old-fashioned postcards of great cities collaborated on a nearly silent tale of love and adventure — with all the finger-snapping music, you hardly notice that there’s hardly any dialogue, that the story is told almost entirely visually, marvelously expressive faces telling us all we need to know.

You simply must beg your local multiplex to show The Triplets of Belleville, or drive to a city somewhere where it’s playing, and not miss this film. Because I cannot do it justice except perhaps by saying that this is the kind of movie that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place, and those are so rare that you can’t let a single one pass you by.

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