Funky and grotesque, The Triplets of Belleville will animate your world.

Triple Play 

Funky and grotesque, The Triplets of Belleville will animate your world.

Behold a tale of true love (between a boy and a bicycle), of tireless courage (from a bitty grandmother with a club foot) and of a shocking new definition of sexy (three wizened matriarchs who ravenously slurp down frogs). This is The Triplets of Belleville, an animated extravaganza of Gallic wit and soul that delivers more wild humanity than many of the year's live-action features. In a word: go.

Written, directed and designed with outrageous flair by French-Canadian Sylvain Chomet (The Old Lady and the Pigeons), Triplets includes some familiar elements. Those who love Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's The City of Lost Children and Veit Helmer's Tuvalu will feel at home (if such a thing is possible) in the freakish megalopolis of Belleville. Fans of traditional animation, from Betty Boop to Disney to Hayao Miyazaki to Bill Plympton, will lap this up like ambrosia. Pixar newbies may find this project's outrageously funky stylings a bit heavy, but there's still a big, dopey dog to keep them jollified.

Triplets begins by introducing us to the eponymous trio in its 1930s heyday, when Gypsy jazz ruled and flappers still flapped. The three sisters (gorgeously voiced by Betty Bonifassi, Marie-Lou Gauthier and Lina Boudreault) perform a saucy opening number in a cabaret. Observing a nostalgic TV broadcast of the triplets later are strange little boy Champion and his humble grandmother, Madame Souza, who prefer gestures to words. Clearly the boy's only kin, Madame Souza attempts to set him on a productive track in music or the arts, but it's the tricycle that wins his heart. That and the dimwitted little dog, Bruno.

The first act of the film is enchanting. As Bruno grows (and grows), so does the urban sprawl around Paris, until eventually there's a train blaring directly by their humble home's window. This provides fodder for what Chomet does best, which is to render the tiny moments of everyday life as spectacles of great humor and occasionally even awe. In this case, we wait with the dog as he thoughtfully examines the clock and prepares to fulfill his purpose: to bark insanely at every single train that passes the house. Although wholly unrelated to plot, these seemingly off-topic touches make the movie.

As Champion grows up, he commits to winning the Tour de France. After a few somewhat icky moments of grandma feeding the mature lad, kneading his bulging muscles and putting him to bed, Champion is off and peddling, his outrageously pointy nose wagging across the frame, his eyes wide with purpose.

Of course, in this story also lurks evil. A French gangster and his square-shouldered Mafiosi kidnap the weary Champion and other equally bizarre-looking racers for an unknown fate across the sea in big, scary Belleville. Suddenly, it's up to grandma and the big dog to rescue the gangly lad, which finally leads them to the triplets, now perhaps nonagenarians. It seems safe to say that there haven't been cooler old ladies in cinema in recent times. It would spoil too much to tell you of their antics, but let's say that their methods of preparing dinner may forever alter your perception of French cuisine, and their continuing musical adventures may transform household chores forever.

More than anything, Chomet and his animation accomplices (Pieter Van Houte, Jean Cristophe Lie, Benoit Féroumont) and vital production designer (Evgeni Tomov) seek to deliver soulful atmosphere. They succeed, particularly when their visuals are married to Ben Charest's Django Reinhardt-inspired score.

There isn't much reason to quibble with Triplets. One could make a case that its view of humanity verges on ugly -- facial exaggerations lean toward the nightmarish -- but whatever. The movie is engrossing, charming and sharp-witted. It could be the finest animated film of the past year, if not one of the best in any category.

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