Some of my grown-up cinephile friends, perfectly reasonable beings otherwise, turn into crybabies when it comes to watching animated movies in theatres. The grouse is old. Animated movies, or 'cartoons' as they are commonly called, are supposedly not quite meaningful cinema. To most, they are good for nudge-nudge-wink-wink fun with kids or quick pick-me-ups on TV or Home Video. But spending a whole multiplex ticket on them voluntarily, while perfectly real human beings are available on the next screen, seems like an injustice to many. Even if the many, many cinematic triumphs of Pixar (even as Disney-Pixar) have not been able to convince them of the cinematic value of animated films, Les Triplettes De Belleville should be administered to them immediately.
Because Les Triplettes De Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville), the multiple Cannes winning little-known gem, is everything an animated movie is not. And I can't put it across better than Roger Ebert, one of the most iconic movie critics of the world: "Most animated features have an almost grotesque desire to be loved. This one doesn't seem to care." And like every great movie, it doesn't care to be pigeonholed into a genre either. It is a movie at once so over-the-top in theme and life-like in execution that, animated characters will enjoy this movie as much as human beings.
Champion, a taciturn, orphaned boy is raised by his grandmother, Madame Souza. What she lacks in height and youth is more than made up by her ingenuity and determination. She sees a future Tour De France champion in Champion and drives him relentlessly forward with late-night torture trainings followed by full-body massages with Rube Goldberg machines made out of household objects. The third member of the family is Bruno, the pillow-like pet dog whose three point agenda in life is eating, farting, and barking his head off at trains. He also has occasional surreal dreams in black and white.
When finally the day of reckoning comes, Champion, along with two other Tour De France favourites are abducted from the track. What follows is a not-so-epic journey of Madame Souza and Bruno to the city of Belleville, a potent collage of 1960's Paris and New York, to track down the pair of henchmen (Much like Thomson & Thompson / Dupont et Dupond, only deadlier) who have abducted the apple of their eyes. She gets unexpected help from Les Triplettes De Belleville, a performing trio of crazy sisters, who are past their prime but still high on impish energy. They finally find out that the French Wine Mafia is using the abducted trio for their own mechanised mini Tour De France for in-house gambling. Now it's up to the four old ladies and an obese dog to save the day. The day eventually is saved but the odd sixsome don't fade into a happy sunset but into a dysfunctional night.
It is next to impossible to crystallize the movie in a single adjective but if we have to settle for a phrase it has to be Lady Gaga's battle cry: "Fly your freak flag high." All the characters in the film - right from silent-as-a-stone Champion to whistle-puffing, polio-footed Madame Souza to three-meals-of-frogs-a-day Belleville sisters to the Lego-block French wine mafia - are glorious freaks and they wave their Technicolor flags very high. And unlike other movies they are not stewing in existential angst or worse, teaching valuable life lessons to the so-called normal people. They are going quietly about their daily business which might happen to include dynamite for dinner, a musical concert with newspaper, refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner, or being on a red wine drip. It's a good thing that they don't make a racket about it because the absence of dialogues give us a better chance to appreciate the wonderfully zany art, breathtaking lighting and the very sticky title song 'Belleville Rendez-vous'. The laughs don't come a dozen a minute, as the audience has grown to expect from animated movies. And even when they come they are tinged with irony, horror or sarcasm. But doing justice to its multinational origin, this Canadian/French/British/Belgian film makes as much fun of Europe as it does of America. For every street-sign showing obese men there is a french Wine fanatic. For every Hamburger-munching, soft drink-guzzling Statue of Liberty, there is an old lady lusting after parboiled frogs.
So after seventy-eight minutes of unabashed, dysfunctional fun and a niggling doubt whether you got all vintage pop-culture in-jokes and theoretical physics references or not, I felt saddened that this film lost to 'Finding Nemo' in 2004 Academy Awards for the best animated feature film. Then I reminded myself of all the other similar injustices and felt somewhat consoled.
Then I remembered the scene where the three Belleville sisters watch a silly live action film and cackle their hearts out.There was both irony and justice in that. While the live-action films are getting sillier by day, animated films are growing up to wonderful, meaningful cinema. Revenge of the cartoons, anyone?