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2003 was the "Year of the Fish" in animation. All anyone and everyone could talk about was Finding Nemo (and rightfully so, as it was a huge accomplishment, both creatively and technologically). Lost in the Finding Nemo juggernaut was another animated film, hand drawn nonetheless, but nothing like any traditional hand drawn animated feature you have probably ever seen. Nominated for an Academy Award for Outstanding Animated Feature (although it lost to you know who), the Triplets of Belleville is a creative triumph as well.

The Movie
Produced in France, Canada and Belgium, the Triplets of Belleville tells the story of Champion, a contestant in the Tour de France who is abducted and brought to North America to be part of an illegal betting ring run by the Canadian Mafia. Raised by his grandmother, Madame Souza, Champion's entire life is bicycling. The grandmother (along with Bruno, the family's trusted dog) journey to North America and are befriended by a trio of elderly jazz-era performers....the "Triplets of Belleville". To say they are "eccentric" is probably to understate the meaning of the word. Their entire diet consists of eating frogs (which they catch by throwing an explosive device into a nearby marsh). They eat what appears to be frog stew; they snack on frog popsicles, and generally eat anything that has to do with frogs. When the grandmother tries to put the leftover frogs into the refrigerator, she is politely rebuked. When she tries to vacuum the apartment as thanks for letting her stay, the appliance is taken away from her. When she attempts to read the newspaper, it is also taken from her and carefully folded and placed aside. It is only later that we find out that these three objects are basically the "instruments" that these three women play in their night club act.

Triplets of Belleville, The
During a performance where the grandmother has been asked to be part of the act, she and Bruno find their first clues to Champion's whereabouts. They follow his scent and are able to finally locate Champion. A daring rescue attempt follows, as the group attempts to get Champion back and bring down the illegal gambling business—a chase through the city results.

As I have said, the animation and artwork in this film is probably like nothing else you have ever seen However, there are what to me appear to be some similarities to other types of animation peppered throughout the movie. The opening sequence (one which is presented in black and white) is a throwback to the old Disney Silly Symphonies, and some of the city backgrounds evoke memories of 101 Dalmatians and other Disney films of that time. But the similarities end there. All of the human characters are drawn on the absurd side with some part of their anatomy being drawn to ridiculous proportions (Champion has a huge nose and his thighs and calves are drawn to exaggerated proportions. The henchmen have large, very broad and extremely square shoulders). Inanimate objects also sport exaggerated proportions as well. Buildings have huge towers which stretch endlessly into the sky, and ships sport very large decks and then taper off quickly, leaving a very long lower deck section of the boat.

In addition to the animation, another unique aspect of the film is the absence of almost any dialogue. Indeed, most dialogue which does exist consists of incoherent babbling and is not placed in the film to advance the story at all. It definitely represents an abstract take on the storytelling. I found it somewhat surprising (in a good way), that an eighty-one minute film could continue to hold my interest and weave a continuous story without any major dialogue at all. It works on every level.

Triplets of Belleville, The
Video
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, we are given a very good transfer on this disc. One of things you first notice during the film is the absence of any extreme uses of colour. One might expect (especially given what can be done in animation) that there would be extreme blues, greens, and yellows, etc. However, in a very deliberate choice, director Sylvain Chomet has instead used somewhat muted colours, with many different shades of brown. In addition, each of the different sections of the film has a definite colour scheme to them. Chomet relates that during the hot summer Tour de France scenes, orange is the dominant colour. In contrast, in the city scenes, some dull greens are prominent in an effort to simulate the night lighting in Montreal and Quebec City. This is not to say that the colours are not presented well and vibrant on the print, they are, but the levels of the colours are kept lower than one might expect, and more neutral tones are present. In addition, there is virtually no dust or grain noticeable at any point during the film. I was very impressed by the quality of the video—a nice job.

Audio
With the absence of almost all dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is given its workout in other ways. It first becomes apparent at the very beginning of the film (the black and white sequence) when you hear a movie projector come to life from the back channels. During some of the other city scenes the channels provide a good fade from one to the other with the traffic, and the music in the film (including an outstanding Oscar nominated jazz song) is ever-present but not overpowering by any stretch of the imagination. I couldn't find a hiss in the presentation, and all of the levels are pretty much spot on. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment seemed to really do a good job on both the video and audio portions of this disc.

Triplets of Belleville, The
Extras
Besides the theatrical trailer, there are some extras which are worth watching. A fifteen-minute featurette on the making of the film is hosted by Chomet, and he tells not so much how the film came to be, but what went into the different scenes, which animation influences are most present in his artwork, and how he meshed both 2-D and 3-D animation to create this extremely unique cinematic experience.

Another short five-minute featurette is Chomet talking about animation and how he goes about moving from the initial drawing, to the animation. He does some quick sketches of the triplets and explains how he starts with blue pencil drawings, and then fleshes them out with dark pencil over the blue sketches to create his final work. He also explains that, contrary to what most people believe, animators do use both arms. One is used to move the pencil, and the other is used to flip the papers into a very crude way of animating the sketches.

Triplets of Belleville, The
The final extra is a music video of the Oscar nominated song “Belleville Rendezvous”. If you think the film itself was unique, then music video is even more—how can I say this—abstract. Involving a psycho analysis session, the live action character from the video is then animated and inserted into scenes of the film. A different type of extra than one would normally find, and a winner based on the music alone.

Overall
I have to admit, going into the film, I was not sure what to expect. I had been told that the movie was a unique experience, and it certainly is. Underneath the extraordinary animation is a story of loyalty (both Champion’s grandmother and dog), and the movie works even though (or perhaps because) it breaks many of both film and animation conventions.  If you are a fan of having a “not your typical movie going experience”, toe-tapping, snap your fingers music or seeing what is still possible in 2-D animation, you will definitely like this film.


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