While hand-drawn animation may be dying in the United States, it continues to flourish elsewhere — and not just in Japan. The way to keep it a viable art form appears simple: Let the visionaries draw whatever they want, and don’t worry about targeting a specific audience. In other words, it doesn’t have to be just for kids.
Case in point: “The Triplets of Belleville,” a wonderfully weird bit of French animation that amounts to little but a celebration of its creator’s bountiful imagination, yet manages to enthrall because writer-director Sylvain Chomet is such a solid visual storyteller.
Chomet’s tale is one of indefatigable determination and love, most of it contained within an unlikely figure: a placid, squat little grandmother with chin hair and a clubfoot. Madame Souza, as she’s known, is raising her grandson, Champion, and when she discovers his passion for bicycles she finds a way for him to live up to his name.
She trains the doughy boy for the Tour de France, transforming him over the years into a lean cyclist with impossibly bulging leg muscles and a long nose that only makes him more aerodynamic. If Lance Armstrong were built like Champion, he’d be even more indestructible.
Champion is in the race when he’s kidnapped by two goons from the French Mafia — chain-smoking and mustachioed, with oblong faces and square soldiers. (Chomet has great fun with the human form in all its extremes.)
On Champion's tail
Madame Souza and Champion have a dog named Bruno, whose black-and-white dream sequences supply some of the movie’s wittiest moments. Despite his spindly legs and hefty build, Bruno turns out to have Herculean endurance, which comes in handy as he and Madame Souza track Champion and the gangsters across a vast ocean to the teeming metropolis of Belleville — something of a French-accented New York, complete with an obese Statue of Liberty.
There, the trail goes cold, but hope is renewed when Madame Souza and Bruno encounter the Triplets of Belleville, a lanky, elderly trio of former music hall stars who take our heroes under their wing and give them a warm meal — although the triplets’ diet consists entirely of frogs.
Working together, they track down Champion and stage an improbable escape, with an awesome climactic chase sequence.
Detailing the wacky plot hardly articulates what a series of delights “The Triplets of Belleville” has to offer, nor is it truly possible to describe Chomet’s gleefully polyglot style. Let’s just say he has a ton of influences, culled from painting, literature, architectural history and animated films of the past. But the resulting vision feels entirely new.
And he is something of an innovator, setting his story in a series of sweeping panoramas far wider than the typical widescreen frame. While the main forms are hand-drawn, he uses computer-generated imagery to fill out his backgrounds and make the action more lifelike. His best work, though, is done up close, with the faces of the implacable Madame Souza, the happy-go-lucky triplets and everyone else whose outsized personality graces the screen.
“The Triplets of Belleville” may not have the depths of last year’s wondrous “Spirited Away,” but it’s a heck of a ride and a potent reminder that animation remains an art form of limitless possibility.