Saturday, July 10, 2004

REVIEW: The Triplets of Belleville

I approached this film with an open mind. Well, all right, with near-total ignorance, which is not always the same thing. What I knew was this:
  • It was a quirky cartoon.
  • Several friends had mentioned in passing that I would enjoy it.
  • One song had been nominated for an Oscar.
And that song -- as restaged in live action for the Oscar show -- was enough to make me want to see it. Great song, obviously an offbeat movie, definitely worth renting.

So last night, when some friends came over for dinner and a movie, I suggested The Triplets of Belleville. Nobody had seen it. Everybody was up for it, or possibly too polite to demur.

It was delightful. Funny, strange, haunting, sad, and deeply emotional. The story could have been intolerably saccharine: indomitable little grandmother doing her best to raise an orphaned little boy, brave doggie, great ambitions. It's saved from sentiment by its highly individual vision and by the very great skill of its construction.

The stunning, varied visual style is a hand-drawn riposte to the glossy ripeness of Pixar and Disney. Each character is delineated by a unique look; they could all be in different cartoons. The settings are likewise richly visualized. I won't forget Grandmama's sad, wise eyes magnified by her glasses; the grossly fat Statue of Liberty clutching a hamburger; the haunting beauty of Belleville's skyline and the wretchedness of its back alleys. I'm sure it would repay watching again and again; we did notice the mathematical formula inscribed under the stage at the beginning, but I bet there are hundreds of similar hidden jokes.

The soundtrack is likewise memorable -- jazzy and vivid. It carries a fair bit of the film's storyline, as it has to -- with no dialogue and surreal visuals that sometimes melt from dream to reality.

The Triplets of Belleville was not predictable, either in details or in overall structure. Yet the shape of the film as a whole was deeply satisfying. The story is flawlessly told (and all with virtually no dialogue), every joke and plot point is expertly constructed, and there are enough jarring images to maintain the suspense. I never doubted the Nemo would be found, for all that I enjoyed the movie. I did worry about Grandmamma, Champion, and the dog. Not to mention the singing triplets and their amazing frogsicles.

Rent this. Buy it. Watch it. A lovely, moving, affectionate film.

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