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By Dena Hill

Contributing Writer

Stylish but dull: this animated film could use more fun and less repetition

IT’S THE DIET, GIRLS: Once a famous music-hall act, the Triplets of Belleville keep themselves going with a diet of frogs.

The Triplets of Belleville, an animated feature from France, comes to us with much fanfare, including the raves of the New York Times’ A.O. Scott. I beg to differ.

Writer/Director Sylvain Chomet, reportedly influenced by a number of Disney films, does a bang-up job of re-creating a bit of classic cartoon fun to start the film. The beginning animation is, in fact, so good it feels magical, like a scene from Steamboat Willie.

For several minutes, renditions of entertainers such as Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker light up a parody of 1930s music hall performances in a kinetic, raucously funny sequence that Betty Boop might easily have wandered into. The eponymous Triplets, a jazzy sister-trio, are also introduced in their early glory days.

Then the camera pulls back to reveal the scene as a television program. It’s impressive — and similar 3-D effects occur throughout the film.

These first few minutes, charming and electric, promise many more delights to come. Trouble is, the brilliant first segment turns out to be the most entertaining vignette in the 80-minute long film —emphasis on long.

The story centers on a grieving French boy, Champion, whose parents have died, leaving him in the care of his doting grandmother, Madame Souza. Desperate for ways to cheer up the melancholy boy, she gets him a puppy, Bruno (who figures prominently as one of the story’s greatest strengths), and a bicycle. 

Years pass: Madame Souza has become Champion’s supporter and trainer for his ultimate cycling competition, the Tour de France. Watching Madame Souza literally vacuum out Champion’s aching knotted legs after a training session is an innovative bit of fun. Unfortunately, it is just another glimpse of what could have been delightful.

Mr. Chomet has created characters who express their wishes without dialogue, (aside from the singing triplets), but much of what is good about the film is repeated to the point of boredom. (Bruno runs upstairs to bark at the quarter-hour train, and then runs back downstairs to take his usual place. He does this over and over and over.)

When mysterious square-shouldered bad guys (think of Dick Tracy villains) kidnap Champion and two other cyclists as they compete in the famous race, Madame Souza and Bruno follow in hot pursuit to save their boy.

But why they love him is a mystery. Champion’s adult character is never more than a dour-looking, misshapen athlete who pedals, eats, and sleeps. He is emotionless, silent, and robotic. By contrast, his dog Bruno is the story’s emotional core.

In the film’s most visually gorgeous moments, Bruno leads Madame Souza across the ocean in a roiling storm to save Champion. In their pursuit, Madame Souza and Bruno find themselves in a gloomy, unforgiving parody of New York, where they meet the Triplets of Belleville, fallen on hard times — not to mention old age.

These three elderly leccentrics come to the aid of Madame Souza and Bruno. In a bizarre sequence, the elderly sisters make their staple food (frog soup) with frazzled but living frogs unwilling to stay in their bowls. Despite their gruesome eating habits, the triplets help Madame Souza save the day with some of their entertaining trademark singing.

Those interested in 3-D imagery will find a great deal to admire in Triplets among the special effects and unusual animation. Those who long for beautifully drawn characters inhabiting an engrossing story with pithy humor may find these same 80 minutes a very long time to sit between songs.

 

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