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‘The Triplets of Belleville’: Tres Chic, Tres Cuckoo

Caricatures Collide in Gently Zany Animated French Film

By Fred Choi

Staff Writer

The Triplets of Belleville

Written and Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Starring the voices of MichÈle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas

Rated PG-13

Although the French animated film “The Triplets of Belleville” is not as mind-blowingly unique as some reviewers have gushed, there is no doubt that it is one of the best animated film to come along in years. Whereas Disney and Pixar and their imitators have made an industry of formulaic films crammed with cookie-cutter characters, one-line throwaways, and a wearisome deluge of references to pop culture and other films, the humor of “The Triplets” is more thoughtful, universal, and timeless. Like the Wallace and Gromit shorts, Triplets combines heady doses of absurdity and farce, thoroughly leavened with a natural and charming whimsy.

The film unfolds as gently as a Jacques Tati film but builds to runaway train momentum. The somewhat twisty plot -- but not overly so, as evidenced by the conspicuous lack of subtitles even though only a few lines of the dialogue have been dubbed into English -- concerns a grandmother on a quest to find her grandson, a Tour de France cyclist who has been kidnapped by the French Mafia for reasons unknown. Along the way she’s aided by her faithful dog Bruno through bizarre and surreal adventures and meets a city full of zany characters including the eponymous triplets.

Sylvain Chomet serves as both writer and director, and his film shows as much inventiveness as Miyazaki’s much-praised “Spirited Away.” Chomet’s concentration is greater, though, and as a result the smaller scope is ultimately more satisfying. As fine as the pacing, comedic timing, and plot are, however, the film’s real triumph is its powerful use of caricature.

The grandmother blinks like a fish and clumps along steadily and determinedly in her orthopedic shoes; the man-size dog runs around on spindly stick legs; her grandson sports an elephantine proboscis; the Mafia’s impassive bodyguards hunch their boxy, menacing shoulders; and in one of the best caricatures of the whole movie a maitre d’ literally bends over backwards to fawn over his patrons. Likewise, the film’s mostly rough, unfinished look recalls early black and white shorts and is refreshing when contrasted with the sterile and slick animation of today’s major studios.

To attempt to describe any more of the movie’s gags would take away from the giddy fun of the movie, as they must be seen to be truly appreciated. In a just world ruled by quality rather than marketing, “Triplets” would reach the success as that other gently comedic and deserving French hit, “Amelie.” Whether it does or not in this world remains to be seen.

At the Kendall Square and Embassy Cinemas, “The Triplets of Belleville” is preceded by an unlikely and fascinating collaboration, a Walt Disney-Salvador Dali 7-minute short entitled “Destino” that dates back to 1946. Unfinished for more than half a century, the film has finally been completed. It is unfortunate that Dali’s instantly recognizable style has in the interim become almost cliche, and as a result the work lacks much of a punch to a modern audience.

The short concentrates on a woman and a man and, as can be expected, the surreal transformations each undergoes. Although the music feels true to the period, the visual style, especially the color palette and the design of the female character, feel conspicuously modern.