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Triple Threat: The Triplets of Belleville show off their stuff at the beginning of Sylvain Chomet's animated feature.

One Froggy Day

'The Triplets of Belleville' is an animated nonesuch in the mold of Jacques Tati

By Richard von Busack

FUNNY HA-HA can be made from funny-peculiar, but it's not a frequent distillation. The animated success d'estime The Triplets of Belleville, by Sylvain Chomet, occupies a zone of cinematic art akin to that staked out by Jacques Tati. Tati is referred to constantly during the full-length cartoon, and he and his daughter are both thanked on the credits. Some of Tati's work is being reissued by Criterion on DVD this January; it's worth seeing the comedy of this storklike, melancholy actor/director. Tati's work is never going to murder fans of the Farrelly brothers. The sensation of watching Tati's films could be put into words as "This is too funny to laugh at," and most of The Triplets of Belleville plays out in this spirit.

This cartoon takes place on Tati's turf: Paris when it was Paris, with the berets, the Citroëns, the accordions, the bicycles and the warning "Défense d'uriner" spray-painted on the walls. It all begins in a cabaret in the 1930s, where a sister act is playing to a cheering crowd. Don't arrive late; the opening sequence is the film's highlight. It's a Betty Boop pastiche, with the Triplets decked out in cloche hats, marcelled hair and X-eyed mink stoles around their necks. By the end of the film, these sisters are old, mute, frog-eating derelicts in nightgowns. Triplets Rose, Blanche and Violette are the Three Fates of this movie; they rescue the heroine--a clubfooted, nearsighted Parisian granny--as well as Bruno, her wheezing, hopelessly Pavloved dog.

The center of the old lady's life is her grandson, Champion, a favorite in the Tour de France. Champion has the personality of a sad robot. When he eases off his bicycle, he's nothing but a sighing piece of machinery who has to have his grotesque muscles massaged with power tools. He and his fellow racers are kidnapped by a Mafia don and taken across the ocean to the city of Belleville, a Frenchified New York City with mansard roofs on the skyscrapers. He and his fellow racers are drugged and forced to pedal away in a heinous private sporting event for gangsters.

Chomet's impressions of this alternate New York are woundingly sharp: the American stain of obesity is seen on everyone in Belleville, even on the Statue of Liberty in its harbor. The gangsters have nightmare faces, as in Chester Gould's Dick Tracy; the foreign imagination of what our criminals are like is always much more spectacular than the criminals themselves. Despite this ingenuity, Chonet's insufficiently keen way with jokes is the Achilles heel in The Triplets of Belleville. The last third concludes with a slow-speed chase scene where bicyclists grind away from gunmen, and it's as taxing as the finale of any dull car-chase action movie.

In local screenings, The Triplets is being billed with a rarity: Destino, a short by Salvador Dali, created--in one of the strangest bits of Hollywood bedfellowing ever--for Walt Disney studios in the 1940s.

The Triplets of Belleville (PG-13; 80 min.), an animated film by Sylvain Chomet, opens Dec. 25 at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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