The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville)

The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville)

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Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville) is a sassy, surrealistic, 78-minute romp and a deliciously old-fashioned creation that harkens back to the heyday of animation, when music and motion blended to create happy mayhem.

The opening credits have a 1930s look, and a Le Jazz Hot band tootles along in fine fettle. Then a police siren wails, a thumping vamp segues into a plinking, clanging, throbbing beat and the camera’s eye zooms from the top of a skyscraper down to Belleville’s street level.

As a rabble out of Weegee’s photo world bops in Fleischeresque rhythm behind velvet ropes, some grande dames — grossly obese, imperious, jewel-and fur-festooned — explode out of limos and waddle down the red carpet to the theater, swinging along their spindly little tux-clad escorts like reticules. Inside, the orchestra pit features Charles Trenet, and Django Reinhardt takes a wicked guitar solo with his toes. Onstage, a tattily glamorous. ermine-clad trio of tall, tall sisters sings and dances the catchy “Swinging Belleville Rendezvous.” Josephine Baker sways in her banana skirt, and Fred Astaire takes a tapping twirl around the stage –- at least until his shoes turn on him.

And that’s just the first four minutes.

Those minutes turn out to be an old newsreel being watched by the two main characters, Madame Souza and her silent, sad-eyed grandson, known only as Champion. With barely any dialogue — there’s no need to know French to see this movie: there are just two lines of dialogue, and they’re almost superfluous —- the film’s creator, Sylvain Chomet, expresses through music and action Champion’s growth to adulthood, his emergence as a top bicycle racer, his kidnapping before the Tour de France, and Mme. Souza’s heroic rescue, abetted by the Triplettes of the title.

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The grandmother paddles across the Atlantic

The movie itself is a creative tour de force — an avalanche of delightful images, music, setups and dramatic action. It recalls the inspired lunacy not just of Jacques Tati, whom Chomet acknowledges as a strong influence, but also of American silent movies, the golden age of cartoons, and crazy farces such as the 1977 movie “The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob.” There’s even a little Mr. Magoo thrown in for good effect.

One brilliant montage depicts the heartbreaking passage of years, as Mme. Souza’s lovely village morphs into an exurban Paris slum, and her little townhouse ends up a ramshackle tenement tilting precariously on the wrong side of railroad tracks. At the montage’s end Mme. Souza still looks the same, but Champion has grown from a chubby little boy whose eyes lit up at his first tricycle into a whippet-thin, Popeye-legged, bicycle-obsessed teen. Mme. Souza trains Champion, riding his old tricycle behind him through his workout, tweeting her whistle to keep him going up and down Paris’ hills. And Bruno the dog has grown from a wiggly puppy to a huge, obese hound that barks obsessively at every passing métro and dreams dark, surrealistic black-and-white dreams.

Then the plot thickens: Champion is kidnapped by some bricky-looking baduns from the French Mafia and is spirited across the Atlantic to Belleville, clearly New York City manqué. Mme Souza, accompanied by Bruno, sets off to follow them by renting a paddleboat, but once she arrives in Belleville, she loses the trail.

Belleville hasn’t changed much from the days of the 1930’s newsreel: it’s still a city of skyscrapers and neon, starvation and morbid obesity, unbridled wealth and scabrous poverty. The now elderly Triplettes discover Mme. Souza and Bruno under an overpass by the river where they collect frogs to eat by setting off grenades. The kindly sisters take them in, feed them, invite Mme. Souza to join their act, and join forces with her and Bruno to help them track down the baduns and free Champion.

There’s no way to talk about this movie without giving a round of attention to la musique. The creator, French-Canadian guitarist/composer Benoît Charest, well deserved his 2003 Oscar nomination for the title song. His music propels the action as cannily as do Chomet’s visuals, and the set pieces, such as “Cabaret Hoover,” astonish. Charest has said that “Cabaret Hoover” grew out of his desire to see if music could be created using a newspaper, a running vacuum cleaner and a refrigerator shelf’s plucked wires. What emerged — and it is music — is jagged, lean, hard and hip, with beats to make a rapper weep.

Chomet has come a long way since his first feature, the short “La Vielle Dame et Les Pigeons” (The Old Lady And The Pigeons). His dark humor and sure-handed mastery of stagecraft were clearly evident, but in “Triplettes”, it’s abundant in every scene: emotions are clearly written on every face, in every posture, and in every sound and motion. You can almost smell the various kitchens, the liquor and old cigarette ash in the nightclubs. You practically  shiver from the cold as Mme Souza tries to bed down by the river. And it’s tempting to sneeze as Mme. Souza fluffs musty old blankets over various beds.

With so much Pixar-generated animation flooding the movie screens, how delightful — and, indeed, admirable — to be able to see, and enjoy, a full-length animated feature without a single computerized touch. The journey is more than worth the price of admission.

Guest Butler Amy Friedman usually manages to write interestingly about insurance, but has been known to extend her competence on the keyboard to art, personal finance, food “and various other forms of madness.” She’s available for freelance commissions: [email protected]

To buy “Les Triplettes de Belleville” from Amazon.com, click here.

To buy the soundtrack from “Les Triplettes de Belleville” from  Amazon.com, click here.

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