Animated films come in different flavors: some are clearly intended for children, boasting candy-coated visuals and adorable characters, and others are meant for an older audience with complex plotlines and themes that reflect the mature sensibilities of its viewers.
What Triplets of Belleville Does To Stand Out
Sitting somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is The Triplets of Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2003), a film that basks in whimsy and has something in it for everyone: unique animation, references to French cinema, and a snappy soundtrack that will likely be stuck in your head for weeks. (If you don’t believe me, check out its Academy Award-nominated original song — you’ll be listening to it on loop for hours.) The humor is equal parts silly and sophisticated, filled with gags and references to a bygone era. For instance, take the film’s opening sequence that transports us back to the 1930s. In the dubiously American city of Belleville, crowds of crudely drawn people gather at a vaudeville house; among them plump socialites squeeze their way out of limousines, dragging their tiny husbands along like purses. All of them have come to see the Triplets of Belleville, a sister act who perform their foot-tapping, finger-snapping signature song to the rowdy onlookers. Caricatures of famous real-world entertainer perform alongside them, each one rendered in the same rubbery, Max Fleischer-inspired animation as the sisters. Django Reinhardt plays guitar with the toes of one foot and smokes a cigarette with the other as Josephine Baker dances in her famous banana-skirt for a crowd of lustful men, who become so excited that they turn into monkeys and rush the stage to eat the bananas. Fred Astair performs a soft-shoe dance routine until his shoes grow teeth and turn on him, devouring him. The chaos builds to a show-stopping climax when a giant baby lumbers onto stage and quite literally brings the house down with its dancing.
The movie then leaps decades into the future, moving from Belleville to a small house somewhere in France. Here, the animation slows from the monochromatic, delirious stylings of a Betty Boop cartoon to something more pensive, with vintage postcard-inspired art. Our heroes are a tiny grandmother with coke bottle glasses named Madame Souza and her rotund dog Bruno. Their only family is Souza’s aptly-named grandson Champion, a lanky young man who’s training to compete in the Tour de France. On the day of the big race, he and two other contestants are kidnapped by a pair of square-bodied mobsters. Madame Souza and Bruno give chase across the Atlantic Ocean and follow the kidnappers to the fanciful metropolis of Belleville, a fusion of New York City, Quebec and Paris. Here, they cross paths with the elderly Triplets of Belleville, who now spend their days fishing for frogs with grenades and fashioning musical instruments out of everyday objects for use in their performances. Together with her new friends, she sets out to save Champion from the mafia and put a stop to the criminals’ nefarious operation.
Filled with cheeky sight gags, director Sylvain Chomet uses Belleville and its populace of strange characters to poke fun at national stereotypes. America’s food obsessed culture is reflected in Belleville’s voluptuous Statue of Liberty, gripping a cheeseburger and ice cream cone instead of the familiar tablet and torch. Meanwhile, every French character is associated with frog-eating and wine, including the kidnapped cyclists, who are shown to be kept alive via an IV drip of red wine. Cultural stereotypes aren’t Chomet’s only targets either. A scene that sees one character holding a lollipop stamped with “SUCKER” as they take pictures with a Mickey Mouse-like figure at an amusement park show that even an animation giant like Disney isn’t exempt from being riffed on. There’s something charming about these reductions, in no small part due to how playful they are.
The Triplets of Belleville is the rare kind of animated film that grows along with its audience. Its referential humor, deliberately slow pacing, and beautifully surreal animation take on a new meaning when viewed with adult eyes. You don’t have to know who Fred Astaire is to get a kick out of watching his cartoon counterpart get eaten by his own shoes, or have an appreciation for 1920s jazz. Chances are, you’ll walk away having gained both.