Mme. Souza and the Triplets of Belleville are the strongest female cartoon characters since Wonder Woman.

James Plath's picture

I have two words to say about "The Triplets of Belleville": Gahan Wilson.

Any baby boomer who's ever bought (and hidden from parents) copies of Playboy will know exactly what I'm talking about. Wilson, whose cartoons were as much a staple of the magazine as those naughty centerfolds, had an offbeat, irreverent style of cartooning that bordered on the macabre. His characters, whether gangly or sawed-off, never had normal body types. They were always grotesques, with their bug-eyes and dominant features exaggerated to the point where they seemed not just cartoon characters, but caricatures of real people. In Wilson's world, babies often looked like adults, and adults sometimes looked like babies. And everyone looked as distorted on the outside as they were implied to be on the inside.

French animator-director Sylvain Chomet must have gotten his hands on more than a few Playboys when he was a youngster, because that's exactly how his "Triplets" and the characters that inhabit their world are drawn. The only real difference is that Wilson, who was the first wannabe-cartoonist admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, used considerably more crosshatching to give his figures a dense and dark woodcut appearance. One of them I still vividly remember: a squat old man sitting in a chair, shriveled up like an apple carving, was asked by an interviewer, "I take it, Senator, that you approve of the current seniority system?" Which is to say, it struck me that even Wilson's comic sensibility has a lot in common with Chomet's animated film.

"Triplets," which was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar (but lost to "Finding Nemo"), is one odd duck of an animated film. No wonder it was an official selection at the 2003 Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals. For one thing, it's a silent movie, insomuch as there's no dialogue (only Foley effects and music), which places the focus squarely on the distinctively offbeat artwork. And Chomet's attention to detail makes the backgrounds a visual treat. Then there's the PG-13 rating, which Chomet said was bestowed upon them because of the opening sepia sequence that was drawn to resemble a silent-era cartoon. It features the Triplets performing at the height of their career in a vaudeville-style venue. One of the acts is a topless Josephine Baker, complete with banana skirt. What happens is that the henpecked husbands in the audience shrink to become monkeys that rush the stage and the cartoon Baker to cop a banana, not something else. In another "opening act"—and that's just how the prequel functions, as a tonal glimpse of coming attractions—Fred Astaire is attacked by his dancing shoes. Bizarre? You ain't seen nothing yet.

After the sepia sequence, which we discover was being watched on television by the young charge of an ageless old woman who played a bicycle wheel as percussionist for the sisters, we're introduced to Mme. Souza and her forlorn pudgy grandson. Souza is devoted to Champion, and spies on him to try to sense what she can do to help him. She gives him a puppy, which grows to become the fattest dog on the planet and is named Bruno by the boy. And when she discovers not a Playboy hidden under his bed but a homemade scrapbook about bicycle racers, she buys him a tricycle. Then, when he graduates to a two-wheeler, she rides behind him on the original trike, blowing a whistle in strict cadence as the stage-mother/trainer who pushes him so that he will become a page in his own scrap-book. It's both touching and funny. Small details abound, and they're what make "The Triplets of Belleville" a joy to watch. Example? To suggest the passage of time so that we can accept that the pudgy boy has become a gangly man with highly overdeveloped calves and thighs, Chomet shows us the exterior of the family's house as it undergoes seasonal changes. But the final shot depicts the two-story house bent to the side by an elevated commuter train rail, which has sprung up like an unwelcome flower. Every time the train rumbles past, fat Bruno lumbers over to the window and barks.

When the Tour de France begins and Grandmama, whistle in mouth, sits in a lawn chair atop a support vehicle which follows her son and the other bicyclists, the palette changes (as it does throughout the film to match the emotional state or personality of the setting) to bright and festive colors. That is, except for sinister men dressed in black suits with exaggerated square shoulders, who apparently are the wine mafia. These Men in Block kidnap three tired racers, among them Champion, and haul them off to the docks where they board an ocean liner bound for Belleville. With only one franc to her name, Mme. Souza pursues. She misses the boat, literally, but rents a paddleboat for 20 minutes (the expression on the rental operator's face is priceless when he realizes she's not coming back) in order to follow the ocean liner all the way to the big metropolis. There, she enlists the aid of her old cohorts, who also live next to an elevated train. Will the wine mafia win out, or will the sawed-off Mme. Souza, with her huge block shoe to compensate for one very short leg, and the three gangly, crooning old crones save the day?

The plot is wild, the backgrounds and style of cartooning is wild, and the concept is wild. And if you have the patience to watch a silent animated feature for 81 minutes you'll find it rewarding. There are some memorable scenes, as when one swaybacked sister shuffles off to the marsh with a net and an old WWII "potato masher" grenade, which she calmly tosses into the water and waits to catch some of the frogs that rain down after the explosion. The group eats them whole, as they float in broth! I should warn, though, that the concept of watching an animated feature for so long without dialogue is so foreign that it may get old just past the movie's midpoint. Some may think the concept better suited to a short film—which is to say that "The Triplets of Belleville" may be an acquired taste. Any drama or action is really low-key.

The transfer to disc is excellent. "The Triplets of Belleville" is mastered in high definition and presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1). The backgrounds are glorious to behold, whether they're dingy skid-row settings at night, bright and sunny race days, amber-lit apartments crammed with knick-knacks, or skyscrapers rising to define that grand city of Belleville.

It's almost amusing to see Dolby Digital 5.1 language options in English and Spanish, and not just because this is a French film that was released on VHS in French. There are only a handful of moments in the film where any words are sung, and most of the lyrics are performed in French, just as an announcer on television speaks in French with no subtitles. But those are your language options, and you won't notice whether you've hit the wrong button or not. The sound quality is bright and crisp, which is paramount for a film so dependent upon Foley noises for it's audio life. You can hear the spoon scraping across teeth as Champion eats his gruel.

There aren't a ton of extras, but with a French animation team it's fortunate that there are any at all. The "Making of ‘The Triplets of Belleville'" feature is only 16 minutes long, and it's assembled from interview clips of Chomet and his art director talking about the film in English, and the music director speaking in French with subtitles. It's interesting to hear a French animator's take on CGI, though, and even more fascinating to watch him draw the old fashioned way in order to get a handle on 3-D possibilities by sketching page after page and then flipping them to see how it might animate. Belleville, we learn, was a composite city based on Montreal, Paris, and New York City which was deliberately drawn to reflect the capital of "fat city" consumerism. A companion feature on "The Cartoon According to Sylvain Chomet" is just four minutes long—culled from the same original interview to make the extras look more copious. It's pretty standard, though one quote from Chomet will snap a few heads. He tells how in his mind the triplets got their strength because they were built structurally "like Africans inside." He saw them as having somehow a physique similar to basketball players.

There's also a very strange music video and three selected scenes which viewers can click on to hear commentary Chomet and others. The opening sequence was a good choice for this feature, because so much depends upon it. It's revealing to hear Chomet talk about one of the team who wanted Astaire to wrestle with his shoes and WIN. "I think he didn't understand the spirit of the film," Chomet remarks. The other scenes are the "restaurant performance" and "tuning the wheel," where we learn that the gruel that Mme. Souza feeds Champion is based on a childhood staple that has another production team member smacking his lips: sardines, mashed potatoes, and fish bones. Yum.

Bottom Line:
Chomet said that every one of these odd characters was inspired by people and animals he'd run across in real life. Maybe that's why they seem like caricatures of real people instead of cardboard cartoon characters. Mme. Souza and the Triplets of Belleville are the strongest female cartoon characters since Wonder Woman. Souza has the kind of strength you associate with peasant stock, while the sisters have a resilience that their willowy bodies suggest. There may be good guys and bad guys in this animated feature, but everyone's a grotesque. And maybe that's as close to real life as it gets.


Film Value