In this animated French film, a boy named Champion trains relentlessly for the Tour de France, with the help of his loyal grandmother and overweight dog, Bruno (who loves to bark at passing trains). When the big race comes, Champion and a few of his fellow racers are kidnapped by some box-shouldered thugs who spirit them off to Belleville (a surreal impression of 1930s-1950s Manhattan) where they are forced to pedal as part of a clandestine gambling operation. Bruno and grandma set out across the sea in a paddle boat to rescue their boy, but once ashore they soon become lost, hungry and penniless, that is until the frog-eating Triplets of Belleville, former scat singing jazz prodigies turned experimental musicians, come to their rescue.
Filled with inspired, twisted imagery, this nearly dialogue-free film is a crowd-pleaser of unusual power, with the strange, measured pacing of a dream, and a great soundtrack of bizarre alternate-reality '30s jazz. It also offers a touching and believable evocation of a dog's life. A great throwback to the time before animation became dominated by CGI effects, TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE is a very strange, very loving French salute to obsession, affection, and persistence.
With a 94% fresh rating and an average rating of 8.4 out of 10, this is the highest rated film I've ever looked up on Rotten Tomatoes¹.
The more I think about this movie—and the images and music keep running through my mind, even now, a week later—the more I like it.
I must say that the jazz from this era is among my favorite types of music. I find it irresistable.
The movie starts with a relatively long sequence showing the Triplets in their prime (as well as Fred Astaire being eaten by his shoes and Josephine Baker being attacked by all the little husbands who came to the show with their very large wives). I realized later that this sequence is intentionally made to appear aged and scratchy, but at the time it went on for long enough that I thought the whole film was going to be like this. It reminded me of seeing The Sound of Music in the mid 1960s, technically the worst piece of film I've ever seen (not that I liked much else about it either).
The dearth of dialog means that subtitles are not required. That's great, because I can't help reading them when they're there, whether I need them or not, and I find them distracting.
I found myself identifying with Bruno more than any other character. In many ways he seemed the most human of all of them, except that he dreams exclusively in black and white. I especially got a kick out of the scene where Bruno rides on a train powered by Champion past their home with all the commuters in the window.
The city of Belleville itself is clearly American (notice how fat most people are), but it reminded me of a surreal Disneyland as well as a surreal Manhattan. The dream-like surrealism of it is one of the things that makes it most attractive.
¹Apparently three films scored 100% fresh: Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Aliens, while Triplets ties with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings for fourth place.