Now that the U.S. animation studios have largely abandoned cell animation in favor of the hyper-kinetic slickness of computer graphics, we must look elsewhere for the joys to be found in hand-drawn animation.
The most prominent of those delights is the obvious and simple visual charm of drawings that move; a charm that is most powerful when the drawings are left to look like drawings, with attention paid to the presence and quality of line.
For a delightful (in it’s true sense, full of delights) example of that we turn not to Japan, as many of you may have been expecting me to say, but to France, the third largest producer of animation in the world (see my posts about the yearly introductions to the Annecy Film Festival by students a the Gobelins School).
The Triplets of Belleville (original title Les Triplettes de Belleville, also called Belleville Rendez-Vous in the UK) is a feature length tour-du-force of hand drawn animation, in which the Tour de France plays an integral part. It was written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, co-produced by companies in France, Belgium, the UK and Canada, and released in 2003.
A champion bicycle rider had been kidnapped, you see, and his astonishingly indefatigable grandmother must find him, against odds, but with the assistance of wonderful oddballs.
As much as I rail about the unimaginative formulas in American animated features (Pixar notwithstanding), the story is really not the point here. It’s basically an extended version of the kind of quirky little story you get in animated film festivals. Like many of those films, Triplets is essentially without dialog, but the timing, sound artistry and skillful visual storytelling make that a moot (mute?) point. The essence of the film is the settings and characters, and, of course, the moving painted drawings, rich with line and artfully applied color.
The film has the character of the kind of wonderful concept art drawing that is usually lost in the translation to film, but in this case is retained and brought to life.
Even where they have used bits of computer animation to aid in things that are difficult and highly time consuming to portray in hand drawn animation, they have retained the essence of the drawn line and blended it well with the rest of the scene (for the most part, there are some awkward moments, but insignificant in the grand whole).
The scenes range from rural france to the metropolis of Belleville, a thinly veiled mash-up of New York and Paris in the early part of the 20th Century. The harsh caricature of obese, rude and unkind Americans is balanced by the equally unflattering portrayal of the French gangsters and wine merchants. The settings, however, are lavished with affection.
The Sony Pictures official site is unfortunately flawed (of course, it’s Sony, a corporation that seems to be devoted to doing things wrong in so many ways). The Flash interface has a lazily programmed Flash detection that tells Mac users they don’t have the plug-in (you do, click on the bottom link); and the interface navigation, despite the designers’ attempt to capture some of the visual charm of the film, is cramped and requires slow scrolling to access anything. Worst of all, they cut corners and linked to the trailer on the Apple trailers site instead of hosting it on their own site; and, of course, it’s no longer available there. You can see a rather grainy (from being up-sized) version of it on YouTube.
The original French web site fares much better and has a better trailer (fourth knob over on the TV set).
The Triplets of Belleville is quite unlike anything from animation studios in either the U.S. or Japan. If you like being charmed by drawings that move, The Triplets of Belleville will do that nicely.