Few movies, animated or otherwise, can match the opening five minutes of The Triplets Of Belleville for sheer illustrative inventiveness. While a catchy boogie-woogie number plays, jesters, acrobats, and celebrity caricatures dance across a stage behind the titular vocal trio, in what amounts to an homage to the loose-limbed, wind-up-toy style of early animation and the sleek design of European cartoonists Hergé and Joost Swarte. Later, writer-director Sylvain Chomet pays direct and indirect tribute to the likes of Jacques Tati, Gerald Scarfe, and Rube Goldberg (or at least Goldberg by way of French cinema fantasists Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro). That list of influences should gauge what kind of sensibility will respond best to The Triplets Of Belleville. Chomet's film is short, surreal and practically wordless, telling a stream-of-consciousness story about a champion cyclist and his protective grandmother that doubles as an allegorical anti-industrialist reverie. It's weird, moody stuff, likely to appeal to offbeat animation buffs and cineastes who favor imaginative flights of whimsy and grotesquerie. But the fact that The Triplets Of Belleville is heavy on the latter–stomach-turningly so at times–will likely alienate those already left scratching their heads at Chomet's intuitive plot jumps. The film starts with the cyclist as a plump boy with a yappy dog, moves to him as a thick-thighed sportsman (with the same increasingly desperate dog), then loses him once blocky mobsters kidnap him. His grandmother steps in, tracking her boy to the bustling city of Belleville, a mocking synthesis of New York and Paris, populated mainly by obese consumers. There, the grandmother finds shelter with the singers from the movie's opening, now aged and living on a diet of disgusting frog meat. Somewhere amid the sight gags and frayed, sketchy figures is an indictment of how contemporary culture discards the old and exploits the new, but picking through The Triplets Of Belleville for meaning seems as ill-advised as trying to make out a structure. The film is best treated as a one-of-a-kind wonder: an ingenious contraption that dazzles, teases, attracts, and repels with all the mystery and sublimity of a miniature world.
More from The A.V. Club