While I was aware of its presence as it came out in 2003 and then was nominated for Best Animation Feature Film Oscar in the next year, I only came to watch Sylvain Chomet’s first animation feature film “The Triplets of Belleville” in 2010. During that belated viewing, I was instantly charmed by its distinctive cell animation style, and I was amused by several quirky scenes tinged with its own morbid sense of dark humor.
Sadly, “The Triplets of Belleville” did not get the chance of theatrical release in South Korea around the time when it came out, but it was finally released in South Korean theaters a few weeks ago, and I did not hesitate at all when I happened to get a chance to see this wonderful animation film on the big screen at a local arthouse theater. Although I must confess that I felt a bit drowsy during the Sunday morning screening I attended, my mind was delighted by many of its fun moments despite that problem, and I was happily confirmed that it is still one of the best animation films of the 2000s.
After the spirited black-and-white opening sequence literally pulsating with the swinging jazzy mood of the 1920-30s, we meet two main characters of the story: Madame Souza and her young grandson Champion. Probably because of losing his parents not so long ago, Champion is usually withdrawn to himself in his speechless attitude, and his grandmother tries several things for her grandson while living with him in her shabby but cozy house. When he seems to be interested in playing piano, she puts a piano in front of him, but he does not show much interest. She also gives him a puppy and a train set, but he is not particularly excited about them either.
On one day, Madame Souza gets an accidental idea while cleaning her grandson’s room. She buys him a tricycle, and, as she expected, her gift ignites something inside Champion, who quickly becomes more excited and joyful than usual while riding his tricycle. After several years, Champion grows up to be a professional cyclist riding a bicycle instead of a tricycle, and we see him constantly and mindlessly pushing himself under his grandmother’s persistent assistance.
We notice that he looks a lot different than before. Looking grotesquely thin and spindly except his bulging muscular calves and shins, Champion pays a lot of attention to his weight because of the upcoming Tour de France race, and how he and her grandmother monitor his weight during their dinner time is one of many whimsical wordless moments in the movie which are reminiscent of those effortlessly comic moments in Jacques Tati’s great comedy film “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1953).
Their world is filled with various figures who look equally weird or grotesque in their broad caricature appearance. The cyclists participating in the Tour de France race look as exaggerated as Champion, and so do many people cheering along their arduous race course, which goes up steeply to its peak point and then goes straight down to the finishing line in Marseille.
And then there come an insidious duo of mafia henchmen, who are two of the most striking figures in the movie as evoking those trump cards in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” via their flat gestures and movements. For the diabolical business plan of their boss, they kidnap three cyclists during the race, and Champion happens to be one of them. After belatedly realizing that her grandson has been kidnapped, Madame Souza instantly goes after the criminal duo along with his pet dog Bruno, and she is not stopped at all even when her grandson is shipped along with the other kidnapped cyclists to Belleville, a metropolitan city located across the ocean.
As a charmingly surreal composite of Montreal, Quebec City, and New York City, Belleville is full of oddities and grotesques with morbid grandeur. Besides more amusingly ungainly caricatures including a chubbier version of the Statue of Liberty, the city is a huge forest of lean, towering skyscrapers to behold, and we also get a dark, twisted fun from how Champion and the other kidnapped cyclists are going to be mercilessly exploited.
While wandering around the city, Madame Souza comes across the Belleville triplets, a trio of old ladies who were once popular music hall singers but are barely earning their living now as humble musicians. Although their singing ability is less stellar than before, they still retain most of their musical talent, and there is a creative performance scene consisting of several different sounds respectively made by the triplets and Madame Souza. I also enjoyed how the triplets prepare their unspeakable meal in a rather unpleasant way, and the climax sequence where they and Madame Souza risk themselves for rescuing Champion has one of the most amusing vehicle chases I have ever seen during recent years.
Deliberately mordant and melancholic in its gray brown nostalgic ambience, “The Triplets of Belleville” does not try to be cute or likable, but that does not hurt its unique charm at all. Its striking visual moments remain vividly in my mind, and its Oscar-nominated song “Belleville Rendez-vous” is so catchy with its bouncy rhythm that I mumbled its French lyrics after my recent viewing although I do not speak French at all. If you want something different from those mundane digital animation products, I can assure you that “The Triplets of Belleville” is a pretty good one for you – and your children, maybe.