Animated Ennui

The Triplets of Belleville

Most reviews of the Oscar-nominated animated French movie The Triplets of Belleville suggest the film is a wonderfully wacky laugh riot. I liked it, but its strength for me was the way it balanced an inspired visual stylization with a dark human reality: the way people sleepwalk through their lives with single-minded purpose but little joy. It might be the most willfully depressing animated feature ever, and I certainly wouldn’t want my children to be infected by its sourness at a young age.

Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, The Triplets of Belleville is immediately bracing, opening with a lively black-and-white musical sequence that announces the movie as adult — with animated nudity harkening back to an age when racial sensitivity wasn’t quite so high.

Nearly wordless, The Triplets of Belleville tells the story of a Tour de France bicyclist who’s kidnapped by the mob for entertainment purposes — a sort of cycling version of what Christopher Walken does at the tail end of The Deer Hunter. (Say this for French organized crime: These boys are much more creative than their American counterparts when it comes to amusing themselves.) The cyclist’s grandmother, with dog in tow, goes to rescue her boy and meets up with The Triplets of Belleville, an aged musical troupe that plays appliances and household items and subsists primarily on a diet of frogs. Boiled frog. Frog-sicles. And tadpoles.

It’s all very visually imaginative and engaging and amusing, but it didn’t do much for me. Like the very different Chicken Run, Triplets easily earned my admiration without connecting with me emotionally.

Part of that is a function of the characters’ moods and expressions. Before he’s kidnapped, the grandson trains endlessly and robotically, and eats and sleeps on a regimented schedule. When he was a child, his grandmother looked near and far for something to make him happy, and it was a bike that lit up his eyes. Years later, he’s enveloped by sadness and ennui, pursuing his goal of a Tour de France win even though the inspiration for his dream apparently died long ago.

The grandmother is obviously devoted to her boy and is dogged (in several ways) in her pursuit after he’s kidnapped. But she never really seems distraught about his disappearance; her actions seem to come less from love than duty, and it’s hard to not be detached when faced with her impassivity.

She and her boy are hardly alone. The mob boss and his goons are similarly droopy-faced, looking and acting defeated and bored by life. Only the Triplets of Belleville themselves have any spark and vivaciousness, and perhaps that’s why the movie takes its title from them.

It’s only late in the film that I felt much of anything, and it certainly wasn’t what one expects from an animated movie. My heart broke when the grandson showed no reaction to being rescued. He just continues pedaling his bike, to nowhere in particular, with that same exhausted expression.

Sure, it’s an antidote to the unrelentingly sunny endings of most cartoons, but it’s a pretty damned bleak worldview, more dispiriting than satisfying.

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