Last week, in a lucky break for Yale, one of the top movies of the year slipped quietly into York Square on its slow tour around the country. While it is not packed with hot Hollywood stars and is certainly not a blockbuster, “The Triplets of Belleville” is a treatise on ingenuity so smartly executed that it is a pleasure to watch. Director and screenwriter Sylvain Chomet lets loose with a joyous attack on worldwide culture, managing to poke fun at every stereotype yet staying impartial enough to conjure self-effacing laughter from his victims in the audience.
“Triplets” is set in France, but lest the prospect of a French movie deter some of you, it was worked on by animation studios around the world, and there is no dialogue in any language other than gibberish. The film tells a simple story of a young boy who moves in with his grandmother Mme. Souza after his parents die in a bike accident. She tries desperately to make him happy, bringing him a dog and other treats, but the only thing he gravitates toward is bike riding. So she indulges his fancy, and he eventually ends up in the Tour de France. There, however, he is kidnapped by the French mafia and taken overseas. Mme. Souza and the now chronically obese dog desperately search for him for the remainder of the movie, eventually running into three old ladies called the Triplets of Belleville who help them out.
Without real words or much of a story, “Triplets” relies primarily on sound and sight. Every frame pops with new ideas and style shifts that challenge past works of animation. The film’s opening shows off Chomet’s unique combination of high-brow criticism and low-brow humor with a sly mockery of the sexual antics of Betty Boop. It replicates that old-fashioned drawing style with flair and couples it with an equally old-fashioned racial stereotype as a provocative joke. But on a deeper level, the opening sequence is a reference to the past of animation that “Triplets” sets about to methodically transcend. Thus the static camera of the opening is quickly replaced with swooping close-ups and twirls that are only possible in a cartoon. Time is tampered with just as playfully, allowing for slow-motion shots through trains and other astonishments.
A level of care unseen since the earlier part of the century is apparent in the character animation, in which startlingly realistic gestures are given to utterly surreal characters. Every person and animal in “Triplets” is a perfectly rendered caricature of an ethnic group — or, in the case of animals, a particular species — and far from condemning this mockery, Chomet delights in pointing out all offensive differences possible. While this might seem inappropriate to some, the film’s amplification of stereotypes comes off as a sort of celebration of culture. Souza’s leading role as the stereotypical, nearsighted grandmother is all the more likeable because she is a universally recognizable character. The caricatured French maitre d’ flopping around like a noodle is funny, but also so familiar that it is hard to dislike him. Not all of the jokes are easy to swallow, but they are all really in good fun. At one especially rude point, Souza travels to America (called Belleville in the film) where a hamburger-eating Statue of Liberty guards over a city full of bowling-ball shaped, Mickey-Mouse-eared slobs. But even this joke has a higher purpose: the ears point to another important foe Chomet is attacking. At a time when animation around the world has been so oppressed by the Disney juggernaut, its unique property of infinite possibility all but forgotten, it is a relief to come upon such experimentation.
The orchestration and sound effects are just as revolutionary. From the slight rub of Souza’s glasses against her nose as she pushes them up, to the sound of a bike wheel squeaking as it is forced uphill, the noises of everyday life are replicated expertly. But just as the exaggerated visuals force a new recognition of things unconsciously perceived, the noises of the film are heard at a slightly more audible level so that their peculiar properties can be noticed and examined. The short musical numbers orchestrated by everyday household objects highlight the ingenuity of the sound design to even greater effect.
By the time the uproarious visuals and catchy musical numbers have ended, Chomet’s point has been made in spades: if differences are unflinchingly faced with humor rather than fear, they become a cause of union rather than a point of contention. Laughter leads to acceptance, but without it there is nothing but alienation. For Chomet it isn’t words or discussion that mean anything, it is universal humor alone that tells the quirky story of “The Triplets of Belleville.” In this increasingly alienated global community, that is a valuable message to get across.
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