Out of all the Ultimate Top Cartoons, The Triplets of Belleville by Sylvain Chomet is the one I’m most conflicted about. It is a strange and beautiful creation, something that deserves recognition for its genius, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something missing from it. The film was released in 2003, and was an Oscar-nominee for Best Animated Feature, but it had to go up against Pixar’s juggernaut Finding Nemo, and it really didn’t stand a chance.
I think it’s this Oscar battle that makes Triplets so difficult for me to talk about. I feel as though, in discussing it, I must always compare it to Nemo. Hell, I even noticed that their plots are similar.
The fact is that Nemo deserved the Oscar. I think it is the superior film. Yet, I do not consider it to be an Ultimate Top Cartoon. It’s too sweet and too safe. It takes too few chances with its material, and none at all with its appearance.
Triplets, on the other hand, is something else.
I suppose I can sum up my feelings this way: while Nemo will make you marvel at how real it appears to be, Triplets will make you marvel at how unreal it appears to be.
It’s also a soft-spoken, saucy trip that goes into some dark places, so it’s not for everybody. Nevertheless, whether you enjoy Triplets or not, you’ll find that you won’t forget it anytime soon. It will stick with you.
The film starts out looking like a 1930s Fleischer cartoon. It brings us to a famous music hall where a trio of singers, the eponymous Triplets, perform with the likes of Fred Astaire and Django Reinhart. It’s cute, but you might want to let the kids play with their phones during this scene — the acts, while crazy and funny, also involve a little violence, and even nudity.
We pull back from the show to reveal that two short, chubby characters (presented in the movie’s “real” artistic style) have been watching it on a little TV. One is Champion, a morose boy whose parents seem to have passed away. The other is Madame Souza, Champion’s devoted grandmother, who suffers from a lazy eye and unequal leg length.
Seeing Champion’s growing melancholy concerns Souza, and she pays close attention to him in order to find something that will light his fire. She dusts off an old piano for him, but her own poor playing of it turns him off. She buys him a puppy named Bruno, but the joy doesn’t last. Finally, she discovers that Champion has a passion for bicycles, and it appears that boy’s future is decided.
Bear in mind that nearly all of this story is told without words. The animation does all the heavy lifting in communicating this tale to us, and not once does it slouch.
Flash-forward to about ten years later. Souza has become Champion’s cycling trainer, and she prepares him nightly for his big shot at the Tour de France. Bruno has turned into a butterball on wobbly stick-legs, while Champion has undergone an inverse transformation. His tall, slim figure and long, hooked nose make him resemble a turkey vulture — except for his legs, of course, which are now freakishly developed after years of cycle training.
The regimen is unusual, but effective. Souza follows Champion on his bike rides, blowing a whistle in a steady rhythm to help him keep time. She massages his muscles with vacuum cleaners, eggbeaters, and lawnmowers to prevent him from locking up. When she feeds him, she has Champion sit on a scale tied to an alarm clock so as to limit his food intake. The lengths some people will go to, huh?
When the big race finally arrives, it’s to a dazzling parade of character designs. No two faces look alike in this crowd.
I especially like how this movie portrays the cyclists. They may each have unique facial features, but they all have the same skinny frame and massive legs as Champion, and they all pedal with the empty look of loping, dead-eyed zombies.
Things get complicated when a pair of box-shaped mafia goons kidnap a handful of the cyclists, including Champion, and haul them away in a ship’s cargo hold. In response, Souza rents a recreational paddleboat to pursue the ship, and she winds up following it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Souza and Bruno arrive in Belleville, a sort of fusion of New York City, Montreal, and Quebec, but quickly lose their trail. Lost, confused, and with no money to her name, Souza makes camp under a bridge one night, and taps on a nearby bike wheel to pass the time.
It’s at this lonely moment, when Souza is at her most wretched, that her humble sense of rhythm turns everything around. The tapping draws the attention of three ancient, looming figures, who saunter from the darkness like roused ghouls. They shuffle up to her, close in, and then…they sing.
These are, of course, the once-famous Triplets of Belleville, who have come not to threaten, but to enjoy a good backbeat. Their love of song is so ingrained in their souls that no amount of years can erase it; the tiny taps from Souza’s wheel launch them into joyous performance, and then leave them laughing with all sincerity. I find this touching to the point of sadness.
This unexpected jam session delights the triplets, and they gratefully invite Souza to stay with them in their humble home.
Their very humble home.
The triplets’ apartment is even smaller than Souza’s back in France. The triplets eat meager meals consisting of frogs, which the gals collect by blasting nearby lakes with WWII-era stielhandgranates. Souza isn’t allowed to vacuum, put away leftovers, or even read a newspaper, because all of those items are needed for their gigs.
As miserable as their situation might appear, though, the triplets nearly always smile. They have the warmth and contentedness about them that is earned from sharing a passionate life.
Champion, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. Now in the hands of a mafia don, he and his fellow captives have been hooked to a machine that creates a Tour de France simulation strictly for gambling purposes. An audience of dons puts up money on which of the three will be the last one standing. When one of them pulls up lame, he gets a bullet in the head from the oddsmaker.
So it’s a race against time, but some sleuthing and lucky coincidences lead Souza straight to the heart of this dark event, and her new friends insist on helping her out. Souza manages to sneak underneath the machine and detach it from the floor, so that the cyclists can propel it through the wall and out of the building. The dons lay down some heavy gunfire in protest, but a well-thrown potato-masher takes care of that.
Now Souza, the triplets, and the two cyclists are on the run, pedaling down the road with a convoy of mafia cars in pursuit. The scene promises to be pretty exciting: there’s a masterful composition of 2D and 3D animation on display, and I was expecting some smart, Wrong Trousers-style action to happen. Sadly, the chase is pretty slow-paced, and there’s not a whole lot of satisfaction to be had in it. The only applause-worthy moment occurs at the very end, when Souza looks Champion’s kidnapper in the eye (or what passes for it), and shows that she’s had enough.
It’s a decent ending, but I have to say it: it’s nowhere near Nemo’s.
But that’s all right. Even though The Triplets of Belleville needed to be something different to compete with a Pixar film, to be anything else but what it is would be a deadly creative sin. It may not be a “traditional” animated film by the definition that Disney and Pixar have chosen, but it is a defiant and relentless beast, with a look all its own. Every background, every shape, every design in it tells a story, whether its heartwarming or heartbreaking. You can see that the artists worked their tails off at making the animation not only speak, but sing. Hardly any dialogue is needed: the visuals are enough — especially, presented as they are, in their unforgettable style. At a time when most animated films share the same bland, porcelain look, and are chiefly sold on what celebrities are doing the voices, to make a movie like Triplets is a brave thing indeed.