As a lover of animation, it’s always a great pleasure to me when I discover an animated movie with a unique, distinct style. Far too many cartoons feel the need to be cartoony, full of bright colors, simple plots, and childish humor. For a medium whose main benefit is the unique creative possibilities that it provides, it’s disappointing that most films feel the need to ape either Disney fantasies or Dreamworks comedies. On a purely stylistic level, the gorgeous French movie The Triplets of Belleville was a wonderful departure from this norm.
The film opens on a parody and stylistic throwback to old black-and white theatrical cartoons, complete with a filter to emulate aged film. It features rubber hose limbs, odd transformations, and smooth lines, with a song in the style of 1920s music to match. It is an old-fashioned, goofy parody that manages to homage early animation while taking a few dark jabs at its conventions, such as by having a performer eaten alive on stage by his own living shoes.
After this sequence is when the film’s own unique style comes into play. Visually, the differences from standard Disney-type animation are striking. In 2003, around the time that CGI was first beginning to overtake traditional animation, the film seems to revel in its hand-drawn, human touches. Unlike the crisp, clean lines associated with most theatrical animation, the film maintains a slightly sketchy, artistic look, especially in its backgrounds. The colors are muted and washed out, making every shot carry a melancholy tone. Rather than making sure that its characters maintain an innocent, cute appearance, the film exaggerates their features to create grotesque but meaningful designs. Champion, who neglects most areas of his life to obsessively train to race bicycles, is painfully thin, but with bulging, muscular legs. The henchmen of the French Mafia appear as an impenetrable, square-shouldered wall that absorbs and highlights their boss as he walks before them. Even Madam Souza, the main character, is comically short, unbalanced, and severely wrinkled, with a big nose and a prominent blemish on the side of her face, daring to be old six years before Up. The film rejects perfection and shininess in every shot.
The other big stylistic departure is the fact that the film is almost entirely voiceless, told through pantomime. The only times when the human voice is heard in a significant way are the music numbers when the triplets put on their shows. Emotion is conveyed through carefully drawn faces, the actions of the characters, and especially through the oppressiveness of the music and environments. Through this, even the dog is a sympathetic, understandable character. The story that this technique tells is dark and satiric as well. Belleville, an amalgam of New York City and Paris, is full of stupid, fat, obnoxious locals who ignore the plight of those around them. Criminals move openly without fear of repercussions, exploiting innocents to slavery just for the purposes of entertainment and killing them when they can no longer work. A boy grows up with the sole dream of winning the Tour de France, trains for all his life, and cannot even complete the race. Specific jabs are taken at Disney itself, to complete the rejection of its influence of modern animation. Most obvious is the photograph of a boy at Disney World, being given a lollipop reading “SUCKER.”
There is nothing wrong with the standard, feel-good Disney formula, but the fact that theatrical animation needs to tailor itself to this family-friendly standard is a shame. The Triplets of Belleville is not a perfect movie, but its unique style, dark tone, and beautiful ugliness make it stand out against a sea of safe, childish cartoons.