Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Triplets of Belleville

Forgive me for this long-winded post, I promise I will only do this every once in a while.  I will, however, not beg forgiveness for stepping back 7 years to revisit a PG-13 animated film, as I reserve the right to explore whatever takes my fancy.  You should be made aware: this blog will be outright anachronistic since I have little interest in things that are in fashion or current.       

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

I am in love with this movie.  Sean has been recommending it to me for four years, and we finally watched it this past weekend.  It is enchanting!  It is like a cross-breed between Amelie (2001) and WALL-E (2008).  These three movies all have a view of the ordinary details of life with a filter of deep affection for the quirky that takes what is normally plain, and makes it bewitching.   

The Triplets of Belleville is a French/Belgian/Canadian/British film that lost Best Animated Picture Academy Award to Finding Nemo.  This is the synopsis from the official website, The Triplets of Belleville:  

Adopted by his grandmother, Madame Souza, Champion is a lonely little boy.

Noticing that the lad is never happier than on a bicycle, Madame Souza puts him through a rigorous training process. Years go by and Champion becomes worthy of his name. Now he is ready to enter the world-famous cycling race, the Tour de France. 

However during this cycling contest two mysterious men in black kidnap Champion.  Madame Souza and her faithful dog Bruno set out to rescue him.

Their quest takes them across the ocean to a giant megalopolis called Belleville where they encounter the renowned "Triplets of Belleville," three eccentric female music-hall stars from the '30s who decide to take Madame Souza and Bruno under their wing. 

Thanks to Bruno's brilliant sense of smell, the brave duo are soon on to Champion's trail. But will they succeed in beating the devilish plans of the evil French mafia?    

Like WALL-E, The Triplets of Belleville is virtually a silent film; the dialog is negligible and you can watch it in French without subtitles without missing a beat.  Also, like WALL-E , there is an unhurried fascination and love for the world.  The miraculous thing is, both movies have a magic that provides adults a window to see the world in a child-like way again.  Young children are in a perpetual state of wonder; they find value and beauty in places and things that adults have forgotten.  Telling the plot almost entirely through action and visuals helps underline the savoring.  How great is it that there are these filmmakers that are resurrecting a modern adaptations of silent films?  While I love good dialogue, non-verbal storytelling that you find in Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin silent films shows how much is wasted on the vapid filler dialog.  (P.S.  The sound effects in The Triplets of Belleville are incredible, especially for the obese hound, Bruno.  It sounds like someone actually followed their dog with a recorder.  It makes modern Disney cartoons sound like they were recorded in a basement.) 

Similar to AmelieThe Triplets has that uniquely French mode of visually cherishing both the lovely and the grotesque.  (While Pixar has this gift to some extent, American films seemed cursed with an oddly sterile filter that makes the settings look like no one lives in them.)  Amelie and The Triplets somehow create settings that are both fantastical and otherworldly yet still look lived in -- comfortingly cluttered with a treasure-trove of clever, pretty, and weird things -- without being chaotic.  It is a connoisseur's collection of happy things.   

Further and more significantly, Amelie and The Triplets do not idealize and whitewash life with an  unattainable and barren perfectionism.  The grotesque and ugly get about as much screen time as the quaint and charming.  When Madame Souza lives with the elderly Triplets as she looks for Champion, the three sisters kindly inflict their French-American cuisine on their guest: raw-ish frog stew, frog-ka-bobs, and frozen frog-cicles for dessert.  With all the crunchy sound effects and floppy amphibian bites you never particularly wanted to see.  Likewise, there is such an abundance of rolling, obese characters to illustrate the streets of East Coast America.  The reason the grotesque works in Amelie and The Triplets of Belleville, though, is because it is not self-conscious.  They do not celebrate weird for the sake of nettling the audience; they celebrate the strange because it is genuine reflection of life.  
It could be a little distorted by exaggerating the grotesqueness or prettiness, but the point is that it is a recognizable reflection of the human experience.  Frankly, sometimes the off-putting foibles of friends causes a strain on your patience as you try to adapt to the oddities of others out of affection for their more attractive qualities.    

What is best about The Triplets (and the other two films) is its portrayal of heroism in the ordinary.  I know: what ordinary?  When Madame Souza trails the industrial steamboat that imprisons her grandson Champion via paddleboat in a transatlantic pursuit with Bruno the overweight bloodhound?  Exaggerated though it may be, the heart of the story is Madame Souza's fierce maternal love.  That fierceness tugs at every viewer because everyone either has a fiercely loving mama or wishes they did, and viewers who are parents watch Madame Souza's dogged persistence with understanding.  An odd heroine, Madame Souza is exaggeratedly plain.  Dwarfish and stubby, with a special shoe to compensate for a club foot, she has an ungraceful tic of violently adjusting her spectacles with a glassy tink when upset or flustered.  No famed French “aging with grace” in her.  At first you doubt that Madame Souza could possibly be the main character of the film, but, this completely plain woman is somehow an archetype.  At the risk of reading too much philosophy in a trippy cartoon (too late?), the heart of the film is a celebration of utterly ordinary characters living with nobility, beauty, and grace.  These films offers genuine, delightful escapism (I am going to bleed from my eyes if I have to watch one more movie about war, drug trafficking, or adolescent swooning over a vapid relationship); no soapbox, just beauty, life and art.  Thank God for pieces like The Triplets of Belleville, Amelie, and WALL-E.


Angelie said...

Great movie! one of the favorite parts for me was the song they put together around rustling newspaper, an old Hoover, and a bicycle wheel.

Meghan Leigh said...

I know! I love it!