WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Sylvain Chomet's critically acclaimed animated film The Triplets of Belleville is a refreshing change from the Disney feel-good style—an odd, essentially silent film that earlier this year gave Finding Nemo a run for its money in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars. It's a French/Canadian/Belgian coproduction that is unfailingly European, and yet contains nearly no dialog. It tells a simple, unique, and decidedly strange tale. It's also a fabulous feast for the eyes and ears.
All this from a film that nearly went unnoticed in the United States. Sony Pictures Classics approached the film's distribution with ice-cold feet, testing the waters only gingerly before creeping the film into a broader schedule. (For a while, the film played in only two theaters in the United States, one in my hometown 1000 miles away, frustrating me to no end.) Admittedly, we Americans tend to turn our collective backs on anything that strays from the age-old, structured, feel-good formula made famous by Disney (and propagated by such companies as Dreamworks), and we particularly, as a group, abhor adult-themed animation—that is, if box office is any indicator. Did anyone really expect The Triplets of Belleville—a leisurely paced French cartoon mostly for grownups—to conquer the North American box office? I suppose not. Triplets never received a wide release and was therefore relegated to art houses and tiny auditoriums, which is where I managed to catch it earlier this year. And despite that modest showing, the film has gathered almost universal acclaim and recognition.
This is an animated film that's quite different from what you're used to. It might be like nothing you've seen before. Triplets is crammed with quirky details, a foot-tappin' soundtrack that'll stick with you, and cartoony political satire. It's also filled with subtleties and tiny gestures, pregnant pauses and quiet idiosyncrasies. Definitely not a film for the typical American kid brought up on TV and videogames, Triplets requires your attention and rewards careful viewing. It asks you to peek into its corners. At its heart, it's surprisingly minimalist—and a few critics have faulted it for its lightweight story—but the film is about a whole lot more than its plot. Paraphrasing Roger Ebert, Triplets' greatness lies not in what it's about but in how it's about what it's about.
The story, for what it's worth, focuses on the diminutive Madame Souza, grandmother of a young orphan named Champion. We gradually realize, along with her, that her grandson is captivated by bicycles and particularly the Tour de France. After years of training with his grandmother, Champion finally gets to race in his dreamed-about Tour. But fate has other plans. He is mysteriously kidnapped, halfway through the race, by the French mafia and spirited away to the decadent consumerist mecca Belleville. Suddenly in the middle of the adventure of her life, Souza takes Champion's dog Bruno on a determined mission across the sea to rescue her grandson. In Belleville, she manages to stumble upon the triplets of Belleville, ancient vaudevillian crooners who entertained Souza and Champion when he was a wee tot. The four woman are soon hot on the heels of the mafia, in search of the stolen cyclist.
I admit that the plot proceeds languidly, at its own patient and peculiar pace, and the film creaks in places. As much as I believe Triplets to be a story about strong, determined women—in particular, one central woman, Souza—I wanted to know more about Champion. He plays a key part in the film's first act, but he becomes a long-nosed cipher as an adult. Also, the film's end seems to just bleed away when it wants to thrill you and make you laugh. The resolution seems incomplete. But those complaints lose force when you consider the film in the context it's going for: This is distinctly French visual poetry, a crafty and eccentric peek into a darkly European fantasyland.
Triplets is a true labor of love, five years in the making, and its design melds traditional hand-drawn animation with CG imagery, resulting in a pleasing visual schizophrenia. The film also revels in all manner of sound, from the tiniest Foley effects to the rip-roaring Oscar-nominated song (which will inhabit your skull for days). It trots out gross caricatures in the name of satire—terrifically obese Americans chowing down on cheeseburgers, mafia thugs that are little more than black rectangles, Tour de France cyclists with comically enormous calves, a Paris that has bloated industry into its countrysides.
It's a film that is about its look and its sound and its feel. It will leave you energized about animation, intrigued that the genre can contain such diversity and wonderful strangeness. Get past its minor weaknesses, and The Triplets of Belleville is a film worth treasuring.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Sony Pictures Classics presents The Triplets of Belleville in a somewhat frustrating anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.78:1 theatrical presentation. I'll get to the frustrating aspect in a moment, but I should first say that the detail and color palette of this transfer are a joy to behold. It's a brighter and more vivid film than I remember from the theater. Detail reaches into the gorgeously rendered backgrounds, and the colors shift appropriately according to the film's settings and time periods.
The downside is that the original 1.66:1 presentation is uncomfortably cropped at 1.78:1, chopping off a fair amount of information on the top and bottom. On my 65" monitor, a couple of inches are sliced off the top and bottom. For example, right at the start, the name of the Belleville theater and the running ticker at the bottom of the TV are chopped in half. At my original screening of the film at a Landmark theater in Colorado, those items were intact: The film was projected as intended. The most noticeable aspect of this possible flaw is the lack of headroom up top—it'll get on your nerves.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc presents both English and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks, although the film has only a few spoken words. You'll notice many instances of French language in the background, which is incidental to the plot: These murmurings, which include song lyrics, merely give the film its French flavor.
The quality of the sound presentation comes through in the music and the liberal use of sound effects. This is a carefully constructed audio experience that can be extremely subtle. For example, listen to the click of Souza's glasses as she adjusts them, or the metallic slide of her pliers as she fixes Champion's wheel, or the vivid pluck of unconventional instruments in the Triplets' concert. This track is exceptional, full-bodied, and creatively enveloping in the rears.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The only meaty extra to be found on the disc is the 16-minute full-frame featurette The Making of Triplets of Belleville. The piece offers interview footage with director Sylvain Chomet, composer Benoit Charest, animator Hugues Martel, and art director Evgeni Tomov. Two of the participants speak in French with English subtitles, but Chomet speaks somewhat haltingly in English. I found myself wishing that he'd gone with his native language like the others. He talks about the film's marriage of CG and traditional animation, as well as the importance of timing. We get to see pencil roughs of the triplets. Probably the most interesting aspect of this featurette is the discussion of how the city of Belleville was imagined.
The 5-minute featurette called The Cartoon According to Sylvain Chomet could easily have been added to the previous featurette, and is in fact drawn from the same interview footage. He talks about three phases of the film: Drawing (with the all-important blue pencil), Animation (in which the left hand flips pages), and Triplettes (in which we see the origins of the characters).
Next is the interesting though brief Select Scenes with Commentary, which features participation by Chomet and Charest in French, with English subtitles. We get three scenes: Opening Sequence (3 minutes), Restaurant Performance (1 minute), and Tuning the Wheel (3 minutes). After hearing these unfulfilling snippets, you'll wish the team had taken the time to do a full commentary.
Wrapping things up are the "Bellville Rendez-Vous" Music Video (which ends with an ad for the soundtrack) and the film's fantastic Trailer, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and very effective Dolby Digital 5.1.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Triplets of Belleville is unabashed animation for the arthouse. It's a total pleasure for the eyes and ears. This DVD gives us terrific video and audio qualities, despite some reservations with the image. The supplements aren't exactly generous, but they will enhance the experience of the film.