Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville is easily one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen. In many ways it is very good, but I expected it to be so much more.
The story revolves around an elderly woman named Madame de Souza and her lonely grandson Champion. Noticing his lack of friends and motivation, she gives him a bicycle and, under her strict supervision, he becomes a Tour de France contender.
However, his cycling ability is also noticed by the French Mafia, and he is kidnapped along with two other cyclists and whisked away to the city of Belleville (a combination of Paris and New York) with Madame de Souza and her faithful dog Bruno in hot pursuit… but not for long. Lost, alone and broke on the streets, de Souza is taken in by the titular triplets, three elderly cabaret singers decades past their prime, and with their help de Souza plans a daring attempt to rescue Champion…
For many viewers and critics, the unique selling point of this film was the lack of dialogue. Maybe five coherent sentences are spoken in the course of the film. While this was certainly a bold choice on Chomet’s part, I don’t think it worked as well as many people claimed. If we look at great non-speaking characters and actors like Mr Bean and Harpo Marx, their lack of dialogue means their expressions need to cranked up so that their characters can be made known only through their faces and body language. I don’t think expressive is the best way to describe the characters in the Triplets of Belleville. Champion has his eyes half-shut most of his time on-screen, the triplets are indistinguishable apart from the colour of their dresses, and the French mafia, who dress and act in a completely uniform, monotonic manner, would have been a good laugh had the other characters a touch more depth to them. The only reasonably built character is Madame de Souza, who has a unique set of gestures and running gags, but gestures are not enough to make a three-dimensional human being.
The other way this film suffers is through its story structure. Sylvain Chomet has stated that one of his major influences as a filmmaker was the classic Disney director/animator Wolfgang Reitherman, whose credits include 101 Dalmations, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. Reitherman’s influence certainly does run deep in Chomet’s work, as evidenced by the characteristic angular look of the production design and the comparatively thick lines in which the characters are drawn (as evident in the trailer below). However, Reitherman’s lesser films had a very episodic story structure where individual segments would get priority rather than serve as steps towards the conclusion of the story. The Triplets is structured in a similar manner and the film suffers as a result. The plot I’ve stated above takes almost a half an hour to get going!
However, some of these episodes are quite remarkable, such as a trip into the mind of Bruno the Dog, a unique method of fishing (for frogs in this case) and a few musical sequences constructed around household objects. The traditionally drawn settings are mesmerising to look at, the animation is top notch, and Benoit Charest’s Django-Reinhardt-esque score combined with the delicious browns and yellows of the drawings put us in the same nostalgic mindset as when we watch films like The Sting or Midnight in Paris.
I was very curious to see The Triplets of Belleville, based on its almost universal acclaim and promise of a unique cinematic experience. What could have made the film work better was more physical action and However, I was disappointed with the film because of the many opportunities for humour and inventiveness it let slide away.
So, what to give this film? It’s not average enough to give it three stars, but it’s certainly not good enough to give four stars. Here’s hoping that this rating will only be an exception.
* * * 1/2