The Triplets of Belleville

starring a bunch of French line drawings

4 stars

review by Stephen Notley

Forget the difference between computer animation and cel animation; where it's at is the difference between animation with dialogue and animation without. Witness The Triplets of Belleville, a frankly great little cel+computer animated no-dialogue movie from France.

The story is this: When a round little gramma's gangly cycling son is kidnapped by French mafia, she and her dog follow them to the city and attempt to rescue him with the aid of three aging vaudeville singers.

When your characters don't talk, you really have to pour life into them. You really have to *animate* them. You can see it in Triplets of Belleville, in the drawings, the scratchy moments of each brushstroke, filled with intense non-verbal characterization -- muscles strain, faces tighten, a woman in a hallway catches your eye as she scratches her leg.

Each character is a strange different thing, not variations of the same template but wholly grotesque and individual creations. There's no fear of ugliness in this movie. Quite the opposite; this movie loves ugly.

There's the son, a thin loop of body bottomed by two always-pumping thin legs bulging with watermelon-sized thigh and calf muscles. There's the gramma, a hobbling little ball of slumping flesh, and the dog, a combination of gramma and son with a blobbish body and thin strained legs, and the mafia guys, fused blocks of suit with their tiny bosses wedged in front.

And of course there are the triplets, three upside-down-teardrop-shaped frog-eating old biddies who are oddly protective of empty fridges and old newspapers and every so often get down and start to swing. And ye cats, do they swing.

And those are just the main characters. Wait'll you catch the boat the mafia guys escape in, towering preposterously out of the water, or the bloated Statue of Liberty in Belleville harbor, or the slumping, fleshy Bellevillians, sagging and living away in the background as gramma works the problem.

The movie is non-verbal; there's no dialogue. But this ain't a silent film, not by a long shot, filled with sounds, the piping of gramma's whistle, the dog's clockwork-clockwork barking at every train, the creaking of the bicycle, the bop-bop-bop-boppity-boppin' of the triplets in full go.

It's alive, alive, this movie, and it gets aliver as it goes along. It takes some getting used to, adjusting to the pace of pantomime characters, but by the end their every movement and expression has been burned into us. We love gramma's plodding determination and we're mesmerized by the son's oblivious dedication to his cycling, and we smile every time it looks like the Triplets are gonna start jazzing it up.

And that's when we hit one of the most improbable and great chases in recent movie history. It's not slam-bam action craziness; it's dragster-shaped mafia cadillacs and the most laborious cycling ever imagined. It's the kind of stuff that makes you chuckle when you're thinking about it hours later writing the review.

So, yeah. Triplets of Belleville. Kinda weird, kinda slow, totally French, very awesome. See it, if you like.

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