With last Sunday’s Golden Globe win for “Toy Story 3” Pixar is in line to nab another Best Animated Feature Oscar this year. Unfortunately, it will mean that Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist”—the better animated film which dealt with similar themes with almost no dialogue—will be relegated to also-ran status. The same thing happened in 2004 when “Finding Nemo” won the Oscar for the same category over Chomet’s film “The Triplets of Belleville.” I am a huge fan of the Pixar films ever since the first “Toy Story” and I watch “Finding Nemo” with my daughter all the time. However seeing what Chomet did with animated storytelling and little or no dialogue, I thought his was the better film.
“Triplets of Belleville” tells the story of the elderly Madame Souza and her orphaned grandson, Champion, who she encourages and trains in his love for cycling. He grows to become a road racer, eventually riding in the Tour de France. When he is kidnapped during the mountain leg of the race, Madame Souza and Champion’s dog, Bruno, are in hot pursuit. They journey across the seas to the land of Belleville where she encounters the former jazz singing group the Triplets of Belleville. The women all try to rescue the young man from the clutches of the French mafia. Yes, it sounds wild but it absolutely works.
Chomet’s has a very unique style of animation that combines 2D and 3D animated techniques to make everything look hand drawn but where certain aspects have a motion capture fluidity about it. This most noticeable in the backgrounds and movement, but where it might detract from the 2D look of the work it’s integrated into an organic look that is stunning. The characters make the plot and movie come alive from start to finish. The moment you see them you know their stories. Like any good artist, Chomet knows how to accentuate the best features of a character and/or archetype to capture their essence. Drawn in a flawed beauty that makes them all more human and much more humane, the empathy of the characters in “Bellville” comes from who they are in spirit. Chomet creates a world where anything can happen and you almost accept it all. Despite relating to these characters on human terms, he never lets you forget that this is a cartoon and not subject to real life rules. As a film with almost no dialogue, it is character gestures and glances that convey information in a way that is totally accessible. A lot of credit also goes to the sound designers. Absent dialogue, the open space is filled and enhanced by ambient sound and music. The two combine in what the elder Triplets use for their musical act, which is stunning when it is revealed. All this serves a well written story with a loving heart at its core.
I don’t doubt that Pixar will reign once again at the Oscars this year as it did when Chomet lost out to them before. While Pixar’s success is well deserved, it should not overshadow equally excellent animated features out there. While Chomet’s new feature, “The Illusionist,” is starting to slowly roll out wider, it is well worth it to go back and check out “Triplets of Belleville” to view a whole different side of animation.
DVD note: The Interviews and commentary in “Triplets of Belleville” show the thought process going into this film from animation philosophy to character and sound design. Chomet explains how he used both 2D and 3D computer animation to achieve his effect and why. Well worth the view.