This is an animated film, but Disney it’s not. “The Triplets of Belleville” is a determinedly weird, almost wordless Gallic concoction that casts a considerable spell even if it’s not supposed to make much sense (and definitely succeeds in that respect).
It’s barely accurate to speak of a plot to the picture in any meaningful sense. In the Parisian suburbs of twenty or so years ago, a plump, aimless boy (the press notes say his name is Champion, but it’s not mentioned in the film) is given a bicycle by his frumpily intense, club-footed grandmother (whom the notes identify as Madame Souza); apparently his absent parents were (are?) cyclists, and he’s fascinated by the sport. Grandma begins training him with grim determination, urging him on as he wheels endlessly through the streets accompanied by their faithful hound Bruno, and in a flash he’s grown up to be a dour athlete–long-faced and thin but for the enormous muscles in his calves; he’s like an elongated Popeye, except that it’s his legs, rather than his arms, that bulge out grotesquely. He enters the Tour de France, followed up the mountain course by old grandma, who uses a whistle to keep him going while she’s carted behind him with Bruno in a wreck of a van. But Champion, along with a couple of other riders, is kidnapped by gangsters who take their captives by ship to the metropolis of Belleville, a surrealistic version of New York, peopled by virtually no one but crime families and the grossly overweight; grandma and Bruno follow in a rented paddleboat. In Belleville Madame Souza links up with three grinning old hags who were once a popular singing trio (a “newsreel” prologue shows them in younger days, performing in vaudeville with the likes of Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker). The biddies take woman and dog in, feeding them the frogleg stew they prepare in a most unusual fashion, and then help Souza rescue Champion from a gambling den where, as grandma has discovered by her sleuthing, he and the other cyclists have become pawns in a a deadly game of chance run by a diminutive mob chieftain. The big finale is a chase through the streets of Belleville, with the four women, Bruno and Champion racing to the docks pursued by a bevy of gangsters in their big, black limos.
One has to admire the fevered imagination of Sylvain Chomet, who wrote and directed “The Triplets of Belleville.” The whole thing plays out like some demented dream, and in the process it often ravishes the eye. Madame Souza’s trip across the Atlantic is both quietly hilarious and enchantingly rendered, and the depiction of the gangsters as conjoined black blocks with eyes and hats attached is a charming conceit: they’re like exaggerated versions of Dick Tracy villains, or recollections of figures from Mad Magazine cartoons. And in the figure of Madame Souza, Chomet has created a memorable character–single-mindedly protective of her adopted son, an utterly unstoppable maternal force of nature. (Neither Champion, nor–despite their titular status–the triplets even begin to match her.) Bruno is also a good deal of fun, especially when the plot pauses to show us one of his dreams, which are even more peculiar than the action they interrupt.
Of course, while imagination is all well and good, it isn’t everything, and one might well feel that there’s an excess of it on display here–to the exclusion of just about everything else. Even at just a bit over eighty minutes, “The Triplets of Belleville” grows somewhat overextended. Its perverse sense of deadpan humor isn’t unlike that of many early American two reelers, and ordinarily when the effort was made to stretch that sort of thing out to feature length, the result overstayed its welcome. (Just compare the Laurel and Hardy movies with their earlier shorts.) By the end you may feel not only satiated but stuffed with crackpot invention. Still, there’s so much that’s unusual, visually intoxicating and strangely funny about Chomet’s work that the picture’s pluses far outweigh the minuses. Even if Chomet needs to learn that less can be more, “The Triplets of Belleville” offers much it would be a pity to miss.