The Triplets of Belleville—an animated film that hearkens back to the glory days of silent cinema with a story that’s both brilliant and wickedly funny—is one of the most inventive and enchanting movies you’ll see this year. It captures the spirit of both Jacques Tati and children’s picture books. The former is embodied by the hilarious jokes that spring up out of the simplest devices. A hand grenade thrown into a swamp, a dog and a piece of chewing gum and a whistle in a grandmother’s mouth are all used to sublime effect. Triplets captures the way silent comedy used everyday items in unusual and highly unexpected ways. The movie has a pitch-perfect sense of timing, capturing the elusive pause that precipitates the release of a fantastic belly laugh.
The reference to children’s books arises out of the film’s exaggerated characters and striking colors. Though subtle 3-D animation was used, the movie relies on traditional forms, creating an almost watercolor wash. The effect isn’t so much nostalgic as captivating. One of the most amazing scenes involves an ocean crossing. An elongated freighter is contrasted with a simple paddle boat, and both are placed beautifully against water, sky and storm.
The best animation relies on facial expressions, and again Triplets stands out. The dog, which spends its time barking at trains and waiting to be fed, is a worthy addition to the ranks of cartoon animals, and the grandmother, with her wisp of a mustache and steely glare, is priceless.
The film takes some unexpected turns, and its story can be viewed as a pretext for some marvelous visual jokes and stunning animation. Those aspects are combined in the film’s villains—the French mafia drawn as merging, black rectangles. The few bits of dialogue are in French (so I guess it’s a foreign film), but they’re so unimportant they’re not even subtitled. The movie pokes fun at Americans’ obsession with bigness (and big food), but it taunts the French in equal measure.
If Finding Nemo didn’t already have a lock on the Oscar for Best Animated Film, I’d be rooting for this dark horse. While most film “cartoons” pander to a younger audience, Triplets of Belleville raises the bar. Chomet has claimed Nick Park’s Creature Comforts as an inspiration. Park should be proud.