The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of BellevilleNow 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.


17 Replies to “The Triplets of Belleville

  1. In my opinion The Triplets of Belleville is an instead classic. It’s certainly one of my favourite movies. As it is, by the way, for my 5 year old son, probably because of the lack of dialog. It’s a real must-have for anyone who likes animated films.

  2. Thank you for the post on The Triplets of Belleville, Charley. Between this movie and Where the Wild Things Are I owe a massive debt in terms of my illustration style, and I probably watch it at least 3 times a month (or whenever I need to be inspired). Truly one of the best hand drawn films of all time.

  3. Yeah! Nice one Mr Parker! I love this film, the character designs are so strong and unique. I also really enjoy how individual each character’s animation is – the dauntless resolve of the cyclists and the liquid-like waiter spring to mind but the wonderfully kinetic car chase steals the show for me.
    Another great post and a well-timed prod to dig the dvd out again. Thanks!

  4. Great article, thanks!
    I do find it interesting that Belleville uses quite a bit of 3D technologies. Most of the hard-body props (bikes, cars, teacups, etc.) are 3D, and many of the sets are done using 3D technologies. The difference is in how they are used, namely with projection of drawn imagery on blocked out volumes… this gets the best of both worlds – world depth, parallax and efficiency combined with diverse, artist-driven yummy hand-drawn lighting and texture. Why so few studios follow this “cheap” approach is a mystery held captive in the safe-rooms inside the dingy offices of executive producing offices.

  5. Yes. Not that I’m not a fan of well done 3-D (The Incredibles springs to mind), but this is how I like to see 3-D used to advantage. I get the impression, as you say, that the drawings are mapped to the 3-D forms with some equivalent of UV mapping, so once again, we have moving drawings, just mapped to 3-D forms.

    I always remember, when thinking about the decisions of movie executives, that in their wisdom and experience they repeatedly turned down Star Wars because “science fiction doesn’t sell” (and all of the major record companies of their time turned down the Beatles at least once because “groups of boys with guitars are on the way out”).

  6. Charley, nice post and I must say that for the most part I enjoyed TOB when we rented it after its theatrical release. While watching it both my wife and I were baffled that it didn’t get more notice for the beautifully crafted, handmade look of the movie…until the overlong, tedious chase scene at the end. It’s a shame that an otherwise deserving animation was brought crashingly to earth by this one poorly conceived sequence.

  7. 5 years too late, but any recognition for Chomet’s film is deserved.

    The lines in this film are beautiful. It’s a shame that Walt Disney was so intent on removing lines through inking (which deadens the life in a drawing). That’s what makes 101 Dalmations so beautiful. It was the only one to retain the original lines of the pencil drawings.

    When you watch the film, try to focus on the lines because they ARE ALIVE. You can see the lines breathe.

  8. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    I don’t know why an article about a film released five years ago and still available on DVD is “5 years too late”, though.

    If I wrote an article about Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, would it be “72 years too late” ? (grin)

    Thanks for the heads-up about The Illusionist. Waiting for more info on that one.

  9. The thing about “The Triplets of Belleville” that charmed me the most was that the style and visual appeal of the film was not hostage to a single technology; instead the appropriate techniques were used for each element. The filmmakers recognized (as so many animation houses don’t) that animation isn’t about reproducing reality, any more than painting is about imitating photography. The visuals shouldn’t be subordinate to the story, they should support it.

    This is something the Nine Old Men understood very well, and forgetting it is one of the great mistakes that Disney made in later years. It’s the difference between “Dumbo” and “Sleeping Beauty”, and between everything made by Dream Works Animation and “The Triplets”.

    And if your post gets even one person to see “The Triplets” for the first time, it’s not late at all.

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