'The Triplets of Belleville', Sylvain Chomet's deliriously warped animated musical, is a movie whose artistry is easy to admire even if the film as a whole doesn't quite live up to its potential. Since first seeing it a few years ago, I was left with very mixed feelings. While I quickly fell in love with its style and design, as well as its endearing main characters, the plot chosen to hold all of its elements together left me cold. Rewatching now, the picture holds up a little better after a repeat viewing, where I was able to catch many little details missed the first time around, but I still feel that the Chomet's deliberately weird affectations overwhelm the movie and leave it, in the end, more strange than really enjoyable.
Things begin brilliantly, with a black & white prologue designed like an old-timey cartoon, complete with dirt and scratches on the print. Here we're introduced to the title characters, a trio of flapper-era dance hall singers at the height of their popularity, playing to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd. We're also given our first taste of the movie's tone, a mix of outrageous surrealism and slapstick humor propelled to rollicking jazz beat. The scene is fantastic. Soon we jump forward several decades to meet Madame Souza, a diminutive old French lady raising her portly grandson. The boy doesn't take to her attempts to introduce him to music, but after buying him a tricycle, an obsession is born. Jumping ahead again, we find the now-grown grandson a dedicated cyclist training day and night for the Tour de France.
Unfortunately, his entry in that race sets in motion a bizarre subplot in which the boy is kidnapped right off the course by mobsters and whisked across the ocean in a freight steamer. Mme. Souza and her very fat dog Bruno follow, trailing the kidnappers by paddleboat to the metropolis of Belleville (an amalgamation of New York, Paris, and Montreal with buildings shaped like wine bottles dotting the skyline). Once there, she enlists the help of the elderly Triplets to rescue her grandson and break up the crime ring that has been snatching cyclists for an exclusive betting racket.
Throughout, the story is told with no dialogue, just pure physical comedy and the occasional musical interlude. Chomet has an idiosyncratic visual style, made up of distorted caricatures and silly stereotypes. Mme. Souza is about two feet tall, with legs of uneven lengths. As an adult, her grandson the cyclist is gangly and rail thin, with absurdly bulging leg muscles that cause him to trot like a horse. Peripheral characters include obnoxious and obese Americans, snooty frog-eating French, and a mechanic who looks and squeaks almost exactly like a mouse. Chomet's world is cluttered with layers of intricate background detail that may take several viewings to fully absorb, and the Rube Goldberg-like logic that drives even the simplest of scenes is often hilarious.
For quite a while, the movie is extremely entertaining, but it falls apart when the caper plot takes over. Even by the strange rules previously laid down, the last act strains credibility, with some uncomfortable violence that feels out of place and a final chase scene among the dopiest ever put to celluloid. Though it runs barely 80 minutes, the film runs out of steam, as if it started as a clever short subject that's been padded out to feature length.
With all that said, 'The Triplets of Belleville' may not be a perfect movie, but it's a wholly unique vision whose breezy humor and snappy musical numbers are worthy of revisiting from time to time.
The HD DVD: Vital Disc Stats
The North American distribution rights to 'The Triplets of Belleville' are held by Sony, who haven't made any High-Def plans for it yet. However, the movie was released on HD DVD in France by a studio called France Télévisions Distribution. The disc has no region coding and should function fine in any American HD DVD player.
The HD DVD offers no English audio or subtitle options, but with next to no dialogue, the movie itself can be enjoyed by viewers of any language without the need for translation.
By obvious design, the film opens like a ratty old print of an early talkie from the 1920s, in black & white and a 4:3 aspect ratio (pillarboxed in the center of the frame), with scratches and nicks drawn on for good measure. At the jump forward in time, the picture changes to full color and expands outward to a wider 1.66:1 European theatrical ratio. Even this is less wide than the 16:9 High Definition frame, and small pillarbox bars remain on the sides for the rest of the movie.
The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is extraordinary. The animated image has very crisp lines, with rich colors and excellent detail. Even individual pencil strokes in the artwork are visible. The background plates in scenes often have fascinating textures. This is definitely the type of movie where you'll want to savor the details, and they're all here on clear display. The picture has no edge enhancement or compression artifacts (despite being authored on a single-layer disc). In fact, I could find nothing wrong with it at all. As far as I'm concerned, this disc rates a perfect video score.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also very strong. With no dialogue of any consequence in the movie, the sound design takes an even more prominent role. The mix is extremely directional across all channels, but not in a gimmicky way. Discrete surround effects help to create a convincing, immersive soundspace. Individual sounds in the mix are rendered with admirable clarity.
The bouncy musical score has nice separation and fidelity, filling a broad soundstage. I did however wish for better distinction from the strumming cello, which doesn't seem to hit the low notes as effectively as it should. On the other hand, bass does come out at the end of the movie during the big chase scene.
Only the original French language track has been provided, with no alternate language or subtitle options. Given the almost total absence of dialogue, this shouldn't be a concern. Even the English dub track on the American DVD left most of the background chatter (radio and TV announcers, voices in the crowd, etc.) in French without translation, and the few lines of actual dialogue make no real impact to the story.
The HD DVD carries over all of the supplements from the 2-disc Édition Spéciale DVD released in France, which had more bonus features than the domestic DVD from Sony. Unfortunately, aside from a few brief moments in the featurettes where particular interviewees happened to be speaking English, most of the bonus content on the disc is presented only in French audio without subtitles. Nevertheless, there are a few things that an English speaking viewer may find interesting even without translation.
All of the following are found on the Region 1 DVD, should an interested viewer wish to seek them out with English subtitles:
The rest of the bonus features were previously exclusive to the French DVD:
I'm still not completely in love with 'The Triplets of Belleville' as a whole, but the film is packed with individual elements so idiosyncratic and unique that it earns a visit every once in a while. The HD DVD looks about as flawless as the movie can, and sounds pretty great too. The bonus features on this French import disc don't offer English translation, but a couple of them (like the music video) are interesting anyway.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.