[Screen It]

(2003) (voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin) (PG-13)

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Animated Drama: An older woman enlists the aid of triplet performers to help her rescue her adult grandson who's been kidnapped by mafia types interested in his biking abilities.
Champion is a lonely little boy. Living with his grandmother, Madame Souza, nothing makes him happy - not even a puppy named Bruno - except for the famous biking race, the Tour de France. Once Madame Souza realizes this, she buys him a tricycle and sets him on his course to possible fame and happiness.

Years later, Champion is a young man whose life is completely dictated by his training schedule. During a contest leading up to the big race, however, Champion and two other bikers are kidnapped by several mafia goons. When his grandmother learns of that, she and Bruno set out on a rescue mission that eventually leads them to the metropolis of Belleville.

It's there that they meet the legendary performing troupe, The Triplets of Belleville, a trio of elderly and eccentric sisters who were big in the '30s. With their aid, Madame Souza attempts to rescue her grandson from the clutches of the Mafioso who's using him and others for his own financial gain.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
If someone mentions animated feature films, the likely thought that will pop into most people's heads is Disney. After all, that studio is synonymous with the genre and made its early fortunes on such releases. Yet, there's an entire world of animated pictures out there beyond those offered by the Mouse House, with many aimed at an entirely different audience than what Walt originally envisioned.

From the X-rated "Fritz the Cat" to the hundreds if not thousands of Japanese anime films, there are scores of animated offerings for those looking for something beyond "Snow White," "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo." The funny thing about the latest such release, "The Triplets of Belleville," is that the title makes it sound like a film aimed squarely at kids.

A recent nominee for Best Animated Feature in this year's Oscar race, the picture is anything but that. While some older kids might find all or parts of the offering to be rather hip, unique or just plain weird, younger ones will likely find most of it boring, perplexing or a bit much.

You see, rather than the titular characters being a set of three adorable kids who live in a town where they make bells, they're an eccentric bunch of old-time stage performers who get involved in a rather interesting kidnapping and rescue attempt. The latter includes a granny with a club foot, her cyclist grandson, his train-hating dog and a bunch of mafia goons with a unique penchant for gambling.

And did I mention that barely an intelligible - or, for that matter, unintelligible -- word is spoken from start to finish? Surprisingly, that has little to do with the fact that this is a French film. Instead, filmmaker Sylvain Chomet (making his feature debut) has fashioned an infectiously captivating, engaging and ultimately entertaining film that proves that movies are indeed a visual medium.

While Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin and Monica Viegas are credited as "voicing" the main characters, there's barely any dialogue. The result is that one's focus shifts to the visuals rather than the vocal performances and trying to recognize the vocal talent, as often occurs in most such Hollywood releases.

In fact, and notwithstanding the subsequent loss of some catchy show tunes and related music, one could watch the film sans any sort of audio and still understand who's who and what's occurring, all of which gives the film a universal appeal. It certainly circumvents the need for dubbing or subtitles in a host of foreign languages.

It also doesn't hurt that it's one of the more visually interesting animated films you'll likely see in some time. Nowhere near the photo realism attempted by Disney or its Pixar business partner in many of their more recent releases, yet miles ahead of Saturday morning TV offerings, the film features a unique animation style. It's a bit difficult to say exactly what this sort of drawing should be called, but it's something of a cross between old school animation and exaggerated newspaper caricatures come to life.

The kidnapped cyclist sports a skinny as a rail body with gargantuan calf muscles and his grandmother is a squat European woman with determination written (or should that be drawn) all over her face. The triplets are long, skinny creatures with hump backs and almost witch-like facial characteristics, while the mafia men are blocky sorts with perfectly square shoulders and no distinguishing individual characteristics.

That and all of the heavily detailed background elements certainly make this one big piece of glorious eye candy for those who like to view animation as art rather than bastardized commerce. That said, some mainstream viewers may view the film as all flash and little substance with many a repetitive feature or element (such as the dog always barking at passing trains) making the offering a bit tiresome after a while.

While there's some validity to those points, I found myself mostly mesmerized by everything that occurs and I like the film even more now that time has passed since my initial viewing of it. Whether it's those visuals, the fun and occasionally circular scene transitions that are slightly surreal, or the cumulative effect of everything that's present, I found the film to be highly original and entertaining, if a bit bizarre.

Although the story isn't anything spectacular, it's certainly interesting enough to hold one's attention. Some satirical moments are present - including a brief potshot at Disney and more apparently aimed at America and our culture and expanding waistlines. Yet, they're likely only to induce a knowing smile rather than outright hilarity as often occurs in the Pixar releases or the master of such material, TV's "The Simpsons."

It's unclear whether it was Chomet's intention to match those witty sorts of efforts or slam America in general. It's obvious that it certainly wasn't the sole one. Whatever the case, the filmmaker has delivered one of the more unique, bizarre, visually fascinating and entertaining animated films to come down the movie delivery chute in quite some time. I have no idea if it will reach or even appeal to any sort of mass audience, but it's clearly worth checking out. "The Triplets of Belleville" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 7, 2004 / Posted January 30, 2004

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