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While Disney and Pixar count their money from Finding Nemo, an independent French-Canadian animator, Sylvain Chomait, is releasing a stylish comic gem.

Characters and Caricatures

Triplets is a stylish comic gem
Triplets is a stylish comic gem

The plot couldn’t be simpler: a cyclist is kidnaped from the Tour de France. His mother and his dog set out to rescue him. The title refers to a trio of singers who kick off the movie with a peppy musical number, and who later help with the rescue.

There are some computer-generated scenes, but The Triplets of Belleville takes a much more organic approach. The landscapes are subdued watercolors and the characters are all hand-drawn. People are caricatures worthy of political cartoons. Noses jut out, the calf muscles of cyclists look like horses, the common folks are morbidly obese, and the mysterious men in black are all shoulder and suit. If Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) used animation, they might make something like this.

The characters may be drawn as caricatures, but the leads are actually all well fleshed out. The dog, for example, is very well realized, whether barking at trains, chewing on carmels, sniffing for his master, or dreaming about the day’s events. And the cyclist’s mother, though she rarely speaks, manages to reveal a sharp and determined mind.

The Sound of Comedy

In fact, almost nobody speaks. The story is told without dialogue. Sure, there are spoken, written and sung words, all in French, but they are not translated because they all happen in the background. Frankly, a translation is not necessary. This type of storytelling is an homage to Jacques Tati, who made wonderful, nearly-wordless comedies between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. (The homage is made explicit: the triplets have a movie poster for Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in their living room, and at night they watch Jour de FĂȘte on TV. Just in case you missed the references, Chomet gives a shout-out to Tati in the end credits.)

Though the characters don’t often speak, they do sometimes sing. A good description of the songs is “animated.” The music is very rhythmic, and made from whatever’s at hand. A teapot can become a crude wind instrument, a crinkling newspaper makes a good cymbal, and the twing of a plucked bicycle spoke serves as a rudimentary xylophone. With three musicians (four when mother joins them), the triplets able to create some complex and catchy rhythms.

A Nemo Alternative

As good as The Triplets of Belleville is, the ending is a mild disappointment. There is a protracted chase scene, complete with guns and explosions. After an hour of wild originality, I couldn’t believe Chomet was resorting to such a conventional device. What should be the high point of the movie becomes one of the least interesting scenes.

In spite of the ending, The Triplets of Belleville is a hugely entertaining alternative to Disney and Pixar. That’s not to suggest there is anything wrong with Nemo and friends — only that they have established visual styles, outside of which they do not tread. The Triplets of Belleville offers a new cartoon universe to explore.

The Triplets of Belleville is rated PG-13 for “sensuality” and violence, so it’s not for young kids, but everyone else should give this Oscar nominee (it’s up against Nemo for best animated film) a look.