Draw the line

Movie: The Triplets of Belleville

Our Rating: 3.50

Arriving in the thick of concerns over the impending death of traditional animation (and bearing a French accent to boot!), the Oscar-nominated "The Triplets of Belleville" has so much of the zeitgeist on its side that it's almost certain never to be seen for what it is: an ephemerally entertaining comic adventure with strengths and weaknesses common to much of its vanishing breed.

There's no denying that the film has a great opening sequence, a simulated TV broadcast of a vintage musical performance by a trio of flappers. The gray-scale visual stylings harken back to the Fleischer Studios and "Steamboat Willie"-era Disney as the singing triplets are joined in their jazzed-up swoon by guest artists Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt. The entire joyous sequence is set to a circular, insistent theme song, one infectious enough to remain lodged in your head months after the rest of the movie has become a benign but fuzzy memory.

From this enticing opening, it would be logical to assume that the ensuing film will hone in on the trio's later years as show-biz legends emeritus. But as the focus gradually shifts to our present, we realize that we're instead to experience the tale of a French cyclist, his doting grandma and their faithful dog. The crux of their relationship takes a while to establish itself, especially with the pup's whines and growls getting far more room on the audio track than any sounds emitted by the human characters. Sometimes, we get to look inside the sleeping canine's head, a hotbed of surreal dreams that seem delightfully logical in their associative chaos. It's a winning stroke by writer/ director Sylvain Chomet, who also scores points by endowing some of his human figures with outlandish head-to-body ratios that nearly rival those of the top-heavy Yu-Baaba in "Miyazaki's Spirited Away."

The cyclist's participation in the Tour de France turns the key to a plot replete with shady characters, some heroic derring-do on the part of the old woman and pooch, and even the reappearance of the title triplets -- now leading a humble but faintly bizarre life together and ready to support the main storyline with visibly matured moxie. Formerly drawn as matinee-show caricatures, they're now the craggy conveyors of a mildly subversive whimsicality that carries hints of a more restrained (and saner) Bill Plympton.

Chomet proves adept at keeping so many thematic balls in the air that it's highly disappointing to see them all come down in the form of ... an extended chase, one no cleverer nor more satisfying than the denouements of countless other hysterically underthought animated features. Its point in history and foreign pedigree notwithstanding, "The Triplets of Belleville" struts in like a lion but skulks out like a lamb, winding up as another cute but limited concept that would have worked fine as a 40-minute short. Plus ça change ...


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