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French Roast

“The Triplets of Belleville” recalls classic French comedy.


The three old gals of the title had their best days when they were jazz-age divas, belting swinging music-hall stomps next to Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt. A performance of a hot swing number serves as a beautiful black-and-white introduction to the movie. Champion, the grandson central to the story, is watching on TV and longingly points to the piano on the glowing tube. He lives with his grandmother and is often melancholy about the dull life the two share alone in a lonesome house outside an unnamed French city. Grandma, wanting to lift his spirits, dusts off the old upright and plunks out a few tinny notes.

When that won’t do, she gives him a little mutt for his birthday, but Champion is still glum. A scrapbook of famous cyclists Champion keeps under his bed inspires her to bring home a shiny red tricycle. Soon Champion is grown and training for the Tour de France, his grandmother following dutifully up and down the steep city streets, methodically (and comically) tooting on a coach’s whistle to keep time.

At this point, it’s important to mention that there has been no dialogue save the singing during the glorious intro, and hardly a peep occurs throughout the film. The wonderfully animated expressions and sharp editing tell the story, and words are not missed. Actually, it’s a relief to watch an animated film and not be screamed at and run over by careening sound effects. I don’t care what the producers at Disney and Pixar claim. Their animated movies have become as truly plastic as they look, coated with the cheap veneer of marketing ploys and tie-ins.

To be honest, I’d seen enough hyperventilating tea kettles and hokey potbellied bears by age 10 to come to “Triplets” with arms crossed and a look of unbending skepticism. Yet “Triplets” has a way of undermining prejudice. It has no strong-jawed leading men, no dopey sidekicks and no cute damsels in distress. In short, no obvious formula. It even pokes fun at itself and the stereotypes associated with its setting. The bug-eyed, crooked-nosed, frog-bodied people in this movie are too ugly even for Charlize Theron to play them. Their surroundings drip with that feared foreign ooze affecting all those poor European nations we are sure have not found the wherewithal to obtain indoor plumbing yet.

Champion, at least 30 percent schnozz, is ridiculously the clichéd folly of a Frenchman — indifferent and stoically melancholy in adversity or triumph, but usually afflicted by the former. Training constantly, his chubby torso has shrunk, while his overused legs and unexercised dog have ballooned. He enters the Tour de France, but is kidnapped by severe-looking hit men, whose boss uses cyclists for a sadistic gambling club. Grandma is on the case, whistling at her driver to go faster and eventually meeting up with the now-aged but still spirited triplets, who take her in and help her efforts to rescue Champion.

“Triplets” is an elegant creation, one that took writer and director Sylvain Chomet 10 years to complete. Though it has a few seen-it-before moments of droll humor and buffoonery, most of its comedy exists in the realm of pleasant observational jokes and wry satire. The illustration was done with a combination of traditional drawing and subtle 3-D computer effects, resulting in a setting that is recognizable yet fantastic, grounded in reality yet timeless. A couple of cartoon boobs and a scene of violence will keep some parents from showing this movie to their children, but that’s unfortunate. “Triplets” is sublime fun — animation even for those accustomed to hating cartoons. ***1/2 S

“The Triplets of Belleville” is tentatively scheduled to open in Richmond Friday, Feb. 6.

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