Orphaned Champion lives with his grandmother, Madame Souza, a resourceful old woman who tries to engage the odd little fellow's interest. A gift of a dog, Bruno, is a success, but the boy's enthusiasm is really engaged when Madame graces him with a shiny new tricycle. Years later, the adult Champion is coached by his grandmother for the grueling Tour de France, but he's kidnapped by the French Mafia midway through the race. Madame and Bruno follow Champion across the ocean and are aided in the foreign land by the 1930's singing trio, "Les Triplettes de Belleviille."
This truly inventive piece of French animation is delightfully weird and wonderful, a treat for both the eye and the mind. It deserves to be a huge hit or, at the very least, a big cult success. This surreal story champions inventiveness, familial love, determination and love of the arts while poking fun at the differences between Gallic and American cuisines. "Les Triplettes de Belleviille" shows influences as diverse as "Mr. Magoo," the films of Caro and Jeunet ("Delicatessen," "City of Lost Children"), "The Family Dog," the animated "101 Dalmatians and Warner Brothers' early Merrie Melodies cartoons yet remains a completely unique creation.
The almost dialogue-free film (sound is exceptional) begins with the young Champion, who looks like one of Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinies" by way of "The Addams Family," and Madame in black and white watching a televised special featuring Les Triplettes singing with guest appearances by Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire (who is eaten by his own shoes!). Color blooms with the arrival of Bruno, a pup who becomes obsessed with the train that rattles by their upstairs window after his tail is run over by Champion's electric one. (The sequences where Bruno barks at the passengers passing by feature the use of slo motion and perspective shifts. Bruno's b&w dreams feature him on the train while the passengers bark at him from Champion's bedroom.)
Years pass as evidenced by passing seasons and Madame's home and its landscape showing the effects of a World War. The adult Champion has a long, beak of a nose and bulging biceps and his life is dedicated to bicycle training. He strains up hills with grandmother blowing a whistle rhythmically from behind. She balances his wheels while he eats a regimented diet before a massage and bed. All this work comes to naught when Champion is kidnapped with two other cyclists who are all taken on a huge ship across the Atlantic to Belleviille, a fantastical version of NYC from the pages of "Babe 2: A Pig in the City" where the chubby Statue of Liberty brandishes a hamburger. Fortunately Madame and Bruno rent a paddle boat and follow, but they lose Bruno in the city. Camped near the sea, Madame uses junk at hand to create music, plucking out the percussive Triplettes hit from years earlier. The sisters, who happen to live nearby, are drawn by the music and bring the unfortunates home where they subsist on the frogs one sister 'fishes' via hand grenade. When Madame discovers that Bruno is being held by a shady French wine importer for nefarious purposes, the odd band assemble a most hilarious rescue mission.
Director Sylvain Chomet has concocted a classic full of whimsy and heart. The animation (which uses some 3D effects) is sumptuous with a palette of mostly golds, blues and greens giving it a slightly melancholy feel. Music is terrific, taking queues from various movie genres. This one trumps "Finding Nemo" just as Michael Eisner has declared 2D animation dead and is a strong recommendation for the 2003 Boston Film Festival (9/5-14) for any animation lovers out there.
Champion is lonely little boy, orphaned and living with his loving grandma, Madame Souza. He dreams of winning the Tour de France bicycle race and she, dotingly, buys him his first bike. Granny is also aware of his loneliness and brings him a puppy named Bruno. Champion grows to become a professional cyclist ready to compete in the Tour and Bruno has just, well, grown – to sizable proportions . But, there is mobster trouble brewing for Champion and grandma must save the day, with a little help from Bruno and “Les Triplettes de Belleville.”
I knew that I was in for a real treat and something extraordinary when the screen fills with the scratchy black and white images from the 30’s that is reminiscent of those old Warner Brothers cartoons that parade the caricature images of the stars of the day, with the likes of cartoon Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Mae West and W.C. Fields. Here, though, we see Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire and Django Reinhardt (guitar aficionados will recognize him) and the title Triplets of Belleville singing their sole hit tune, “Rendezvous,” in a toe-tapping and beautifully created opening.
The animation camera pulls back and we see that the image is being shown on a battered black and white TV set being watched by little Champion and his granny in their rickety home smack next to the elevated train. The boy’s bedroom is plastered with posters of his heroes, the winners of the grueling and prestigious Tour. Grandma Souza gives him the aforementioned gifts and Champion’s direction in life is defined.
Jump ahead some years and the now fully grown Champion is in training with the help of grandma, she with her ever-present whistle tooting out a cadence beat at which Champion will peddle. He is about to participate in his coveted bicycle race and is at the peak of condition. The race begins and grandma follows behind Champion in the support truck. Suddenly, sabotage occurs, sidelining granny. An identical truck takes her place, this one driven by a pair of sinister looking thugs. Soon, their intent is clear and Champion, along with two other racers, is kidnapped by the French Mafia and spirited away.
Madame Souza - tiny, portly and clubfooted – is not to be deterred as she takes tubby Bruno and sets of in search of Champion. Along the way she is taken in by the now-elderly Triplets and plans are made to follow Champion’s captors across the Atlantic to the town of Belleville where the bicyclists are used to perform their skills for a room full of gamblers. Granny, Bruno and the Triplets head off to America on their rescue mission.
It is a rare occasion that I get a film rush when I watch a movie. “Les Triplettes de Belleville” is one of those rare occasions. From the beautifully rendered opening number to the imaginative abstractness of the 2-D drawings the film pulled me into its quirky, entertaining story. Using minimal dialog, director Sylvain Chomet tells volumes with the eccentric characters that populate “Les Triplettes.” My favorites are Madame Souza, probably one of the pluckiest octogenarians you’ll ever see, and the well stuffed but totally loyal Bruno.
Grandma is ready and willing to take on any hardship to get her beloved Champion back. She doesn’t say much but she is up to the task to rescue her grandson. Bruno has to be one of the great dogs of animation, ranking up there with Pongo & Perdita (“101 Dalmatians” (1961)) and Lady & Tramp. Bruno is a yappy, happy little puppy that grows into a rather obese (and still yappy) canine that lives by the train schedule of the very close quartered elevated train. Every 15 minutes, like clockwork, Bruno rushes to the top floor of their shaky home to bark at the passing train. In one of the film’s inspired moments, we are privy to Bruno’s dreams (in black and white) where he is the passenger on the train and the passengers take his place to bark at he rides past.
The Triplets of “Les Triplettes” are an odd, funny and endearing trio of old ladies that take Madame Souza’s quest to heart and aid in the rescue of Champion. But, not before they dynamite the nearby lake and harvest and share their favorite food – frogs.
There are many notable moments of animation excellence through the course of “Les Triplettes de Belleville.” Incredible attention to details, like a television broadcast of Charles De Gaulle speaking to the French nation, are provided throughout. The precise use of sound as a comedic tool is reminiscent of the fine audio work in another wonderful, surrealistic French film, “Delicatessen.” Helmer Chomet shows the influence of the great Jacque Tati with his pointedly minimal use of the spoken word throughout “Les Triplettes de Belleville.” The only words used are song lyrics and the complaints of a waitress when Madame Souza orders hamburgers and can’t pay.
The 2-D animation is richly done and, though darkly hued, rivals some of the best pen and ink efforts out of Disney studios, especially when considering budget. Sound is also taken to subtle levels with, even, a squeaky wheel being played out to tense ends.
This short and sweet masterpiece has jumped to my best animation list and will likely be one of my 10 best at the end of the year. I give “Les Triplettes de Belleville” an A.
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