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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
[Bark bark bark bark]
DVD ReviewThe Triplets of Belleville is nearly impossible to describe, which makes it a very, very difficult film to discuss, but here goes: As the last traditionally animated film from Disney gasps through an unimpressive theatrical run, foreign artists have been producing the kind of magic you used to see only from the House of Mouse. The Japanese have a well-established track record (and, thanks to Spirited Away, an Oscar for their troubles), but 2003's best traditionally-animated feature was Triplets, a French-Belgian-Canadian collaboration from director Sylvain Chomet, who was trained in England. It's a bizarre, often grotesque, visually stunning and outlandish marvel and one of the most original movies I've ever seen.
The story revolves around a boy, his dog, and his grandma. The three live in a ramshackle house outside of Paris. In the beginning, the boy is about five, and he sits up in his bedroom all day, lonely and bored. So for his birthday, his grandma gives him a puppy and a tricycle. As time passes, things stay the same: the house is still ramshackle (and made worse by the addition of an elevated train track that pushes it aside, causing everything inside to tilt slightly), the dog is still alive (albeit much, much fatter), and the boy is still riding his bike (though he's training for the Tour de France and has sprouted impossibly large calf muscles). Grandma is the boy's determined trainer, and as his rides up hills in the pouring rain, she follows behind on the old tricycle, tooting a whistle all the way.
All is going well for the small family until the day of the race, when the boy is kidnapped by a band of (literally) square-shouldered hit men who throw him in a boat and cart him off to Belleville, a sleazy city full corruption and consumerism. It's up to grandma and Bruno (the tubby dog with the stick-skinny legs), and, perhaps, the legendary jazz trio once billed as the Triplets of Belleville, to rescue the boy from a torturous device designed by a mafia boss/winemaker who seems, judging by his nose, to really enjoy his signature product.
Do you see why I said this is a difficult film to discuss? It defies quick summary or easy explanations. I've yet to mention that there is next to no dialogue throughout; all of the above and more is communicated entirely through the visuals. Chomet, who also scripted, creates a world where images are so striking, words aren't necessary. The narrative is enormously complex, but it plays out gradually and, as it happens, it all seems somehow rather sensible.
There is a common narrative thread—the grandma's efforts to rescue the boy—but much of the film plays out like a series of vignettes, animated shorts that allow for a brief detour into the weird world of Belleville. My favorite involves Bruno, the dog, who hates trains. Every time a train passes by his home (which is every few minutes), he races up the crooked steps to bark at it. The gag runs throughout the film, culminating in a surreal dream sequence in which he's actually riding the train, and his master is pulling it, and we discover his main motivation in life is his food dish, which most dog owners probably knew already. And there you go: when spelled out, it doesn't make sense, because this is a story that could not exist except as animation, and you really do need to see it.
It's not often you see a film that genuinely surprises you again and again. I'm not talking about cheap scares or tricky plot turns, I'm talking about a movie that's so full of life, so enamored with the boundless possibilities of film, that you watch with rapt attention, convinced that, truly, absolutely anything could happen next. There isn't a moment I could have predicted, and the story ends in a matter I'd never have expected. Logically, then, I don't want to ruin any of the surprises, but I will say I never stopped smiling as I watched the Triplets preparing dinner for the cyclist's grandmother, or performing their breakout hit with the help of a few common household items, or sneaking their new friends into the villain's hideout in a desperate rescue attempt.
Audiences used to the polished sheen of a Disney film might be put off by the dark, dreary atmosphere and unusual animation style of The Triplets of Belleville, but it's an artistic achievement on a far greater scale than a mainstream merchandising generator like Treasure Planet. And though it's a sometimes disturbing, occasionally intense, and intermittently violent film, I think whole families will enjoy it. It's been given a family-unfriendly PG-13 rating for intense images and an exaggerated nude dancer during a 1920s jazz scene, but I can't imagine children not falling for this delightful picture along with their parents.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Columbia TriStar has been doing a great job with animation lately. Tokyo Godfathers looks wonderful; The Triplets of Belleville looks even better. Even with such a busy image, the compression job is first rate: I noticed not a hint of aliasing or artifacting throughout. Colors are rich and well defined. Blacks are solid. Fine detail is excellent. A few scenes show a bit of grain, but it's never distracting (and of course, in some scenes, it's intentional). Note also that some scenes are slightly windowboxed.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Though The Triplets of Bellville features no dialogue, the soundtrack immerses you in the film nonetheless, thanks in large part to a nuanced DD 5.1 mix. Surrounds are used creatively and constantly, and the wide front soundstage features frequent directional effects, panning, and stereo separation. Bass is strong as well, though generally it's not in the forefront of the mix.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
Hear more from Chomet in the five-minute featurette The Cartoon According to Director Sylvain Chomet, which is pretty much the director talking about drawing and character design. At one point, he explains how the Triplets were drawn to have the hidden strengths of "black basketball players from New York." Uh-huh.
A few crew members (I'm not sure which, I don't think they introduce themselves) comment on three brief snippets of film with a total running time of about five minutes. Their comments are in French, but subtitled, and are funny and interesting. I wouldn't have minded a feature-length track.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer and the surreal music video for the Oscar-nominated title track.
Note that while subtitles are included for the film, they only translate key phrases and plot point. Atmospheric elements, like news reports and side conversations, are not translated. I'm sure this was an intentional decision, but it kept pulling me out of the film, because I kept wondering what was being said (even though I knew it wasn't important). Even more confounding is the fact that the Spanish track dubs these snippets, and they are translated via subtitles when shown as clips in the featurette. Still, this is a movie about the visuals, and that's a small complaint, though I wonder how the translations were handled theatrically.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsThe Triplets of Belleville had little chance at the Oscars against the gorgeous visuals, popular appeal, and heart of Pixar's Finding Nemo, but it's still a triumph, and equally deserving of the honor. It's an imaginative visual treat that proves 2-D animation is still alive and well... at least in Canada, France, and Belgium.
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