Dazzling `Belleville' is animation magic


February 13, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,MOVIE CRITIC

Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville is a madcap milestone. Not since Disney's 75-minute Alice In Wonderland (1951) has an animator filled the screen with dazzling flights of random invention that manage to hook up into a swift, brief narrative. Instead of Alice there's an indomitable, clubfooted grandmother named Madame Souza, her bike-riding grandson Champion, and his ever-hungry dog, Bruno; instead of Wonderland there's a merry and menacing megalopolis called Belleville. And instead of a White Rabbit and Queen of Hearts and Cheshire Cat there are French wine Mafia thugs, their Godfather and a scat-singing trio called the Triplets of Belleville.

In this mood-boosting cartoon feature, director Chomet empties his mind the way an old-fashioned magician would his top hat and tails. He scatters notions and gimmicks that form breathtaking tricks, illusions and crack comic adventures. The drawings tumble out with wit and fecundity. Every character is an honest-to-God character, and the compositions boast the teeming, confident cross-country sweep of Disney's 101 Dalmatians. Virtually a silent film with music and sound effects, The Triplets of Belleville produces the feeling of an orchestrated cacophony with a few nonsense lines and lyrics. The psychic curlicues of Chomet's storytelling beggar description even as they pull you into the giddy state of a waking dream.

Champion, a woebegone orphan in a Paris suburb in the '50s, finds his calling when Madame Souza buys him a tricycle. Roughly a decade later the boy enters the Tour de France only to have members of the wine Mafia kidnap him mid-race and ship him off to Belleville. This city is New York as a high-caloric melting pot. No matter how tired and poor they were when they got there, everyone has fattened up.

Chomet pumps up the creative volume with a sepia-and-white featurette even before we get to know Madame Souza and Champion or ride the hills of the Tour de France and the urban canyons of Belleville. The movie begins with a mad mini-masterpiece within a mad maxi-masterpiece: the mock-performance film of a celebrated 1930s trio, the Triplets of Belleville. (The sequence pays homage to sassy '30s American cartoons that caricatured Hollywood luminaries.) In a slaphappy milieu that's part French music hall and part Tinseltown, the female fans resemble giant balloons, the tuxedoed males are like tiny monkeys in monkey suits, and the stars are inspired zanies. The Triplets swing out with a signature number that puts the scat into scatology. Iconic figures like Fred Astaire strut their stuff to the point of self-immolation; Astaire's act is the opposite of Chaplin eating a shoe in The Gold Rush.

When we realize that this spectacle has unfolded on the flickering '50s TV in Madame Souza's house, it's hard to guess how the performance will connect to the unfolding story. But Chomet's lunacy is so resonant with subterranean depths that we have no doubts of an ultimate linkage. It comes when Madame Souza follows Champion and his kidnappers to Belleville, and the Triplets become part of his rescue team. To watch The Triplets of Belleville is to surrender, happily, to another individual's dream obsession, complete with its own eccentric logic.

The film has been called surreal, but it's a blend of the surreal and the very real. Take the third major character: Champion's dog, Bruno, is brilliantly dog-like in his omnipresent appetite and also possessed of an intricate interior life. Bruno enters the household as one of Madame Souza's pre-trike ploys to cheer up Champion; rather, the empathic animal proves to be Champion's comrade-in-pathos. Bruno even has his own canine version of a primal scene. Champion's model train set (another failed picker-upper from Madame Souza) injures Bruno as a pup. So naturally the adult Bruno barks incessantly at railroads and subways. The most amazing strokes in The Triplets of Belleville are Bruno's black-and-white nightmares. They filter the weird reversals of the subplots and manic swings of the characters into a locomotive car and/or a doggie bowl.

The whole movie is like that: visually and comically it's a mix of the far-out and the everyday. It generates steady laughs from carefully observed, close-to-absurd behavior, then takes death-defying leaps into the slapstick stratosphere. Champion's early childhood is a superb parody of lachrymose kids' fiction. When Chomet jumps ahead to his racing prime, Champion has become too scary-looking to be pathetic - his legs bulge like sausage links. Madame Souza's bricklayer's build and can-do spirit develop awesome deadpan humor as the film goes on. You're tickled when she feeds Champion and Bruno by the pound between operating as bike coach and mechanic. When the main plot kicks in, you believe that she and Bruno can commandeer a paddle-boat and make their own passage to Belleville.

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