doaskdotell MOVIE REVIEW of The Triplets of Belleville, Spirited Away, Babe, Charlotte’s Web


Title:  The Triplets of Belleville

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: France, Canada, Latvia: French, English

Running time: 91 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Sony Pictures Classics

Director; Writer: Sylvain Chomet




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In Pennsylvania there are a couple of huge model railroad layouts (like Roadside America) for tourists, each like a whole kingdom with towns, mountains, roads, days and nights. One could almost live inside of one of these as a toy.


And this animated film creates a whole virtual little parallel universe, with little subkingdoms. The basic story is simple enough. A young man (Champion) trains and then enters the Tour De France as a cyclist, and is kidnapped. His grandmother (Madame Souza) searches for him, with the apparent help of nightclub performers, the Triplets of Belleville (three female music-hall stars in 1930s genre). There is little dialogue—everything is visual, and there is no need for subtitles.


It’s the journey that makes this a great road movie with lots of little subdomains. It starts with the cyclist training in the streets of Paris, and then his participation in the race. Actually, it starts early, with an encapsulated black-and-white 50s-like performance of the Triplets performing “Belleville Rendez-Vous,” which was nominated for Best Song for the Oscars this year and is showing up on disco floors now. Pretty quickly we see the fascinating art of mechanics, of technologies communicating with each other through bicycle gears. A derailleur, for example, runs a record changer. And there are trains of all sizes and descriptions running everywhere, some real and some model. One of them looks like a Civil War era steam engine, another is a self-propelled toy streetcar. So we quickly build up the idea that real worlds and make-believe ones are interchangeable, as if dreams were reality or that perhaps are, in our real world, are toys manipulated by a Hemlein puppet-meister. Real world can run into toy ones, as if we could cross branes into parallel worlds.


The cyclist is put onto a machine where he watches a virtual reality display while he practices on a flatbed, as they travel to Belleville, and the Triplets will follow. There is one tremendously Tall Ship, that sails to the music of the Mozart C minor Mass, performed romantically. Belleville, it turns out, is a fascinating city that looks like a mix of New York City, Trump style, and Montreal. You want to get out of your stadium seat (I saw it at a new Landmark in Washington and even many weeks into the engagement it was full) and explore the streets of this play city. There is one bridge, on an high palisade, tall enough for the Tall Ship. Across the river is a whole Dominion to explore that is kind of like The Shire.


The colors in the film, rather than being garish as in Finding Nemo, are subtle in hue, ranging from black-and-white to beige to blue-blacks. But it is the extraordinary mechanical imagination that is stunning. In one scene the Triplets perform on bicycle spokes and refrigerator grating, and a vacuum cleaner. Then there is the sheisk-a-bob of live frog (cruelty to animals, anyone – they boils lobsters live, don’t they?). It’s a trip, maybe a dream, maybe an acid trip if you want to believe it.


The song will come back in the end credits, and it is so French (Belle-VILLE), so off the wall, so new wave, so effete. This is no kids movie, it is a delicious political satire, about French attitudes towards America, and separatism in Quebec, and even about the whole history between England and France throughout much of the last millennium.


This film is being shown with a short Destino, from Walt Disney Pictures (Dominque Monfery and Roy Edward Disney).


An earlier animated film with a somewhat similar effect is the Japanese (with US English Version) Spirited Away (“Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi”) (2001, Walt Disney/Studio Ghibli, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 125 min, PG), which is very long for an animated feature, especially a fairy tale like this. Chihiro/Sen (Rumi Higari) is a little girl whose family moves to the suburbs. She enters a tunnel and finds herself in a threatening world in which people are turned to animals, including her parents who apparently have become pigs. There is a long adventure that strings out, including a streetcar train the runs through a flood—creating this another-planet/otherworld effect. The ending is a bit of a copout. The symphonic music score by Joe Hisaishi and Youmi Kimara reminds one of late romanticism and is most effective—sometimes with a light touch. There is one sequence at the end that reminds me of Babe (or Babe the Gallant Pig) (1995, dir. Chris Noonan, Universal, PG), a touching Australian story of what it is like to be raised to be eaten—and Babe the Piglet rises to the challenge, eventually learning to herd sheep in military fashion (note the political message). There is that line, “you’re job is to eat your food…” and a rather Mephistophelean feline. Were we all vegetarians. Oliver North praised this movie on his talk show. The sequel is Babe: Pig in the City (1998)


Charlotte’s Web (2006, Paramount/Walden Media/Nickelodeon, dir. Gary Winick, book by E.B. White, 97 min, G, Australia/USA) is a remake of a famous 1973 kid’s film. Nickelodeon did a presentation of the writers’ internships that it offers at the Sunsetscripts seminars in 2006, and one can see that it takes very specific skills to write children’s material like this. The title is a metaphor. Charlotte, a loquacious spider (voice Julia Roberts) spins promotional webs to save Wilbur the Piglet (voice, Dominc Scott Kay) from becoming Christmas dinner. I wondered it the Web could be considered an analogy to the World Wide Web, even if just a miracle for the farm families and then at the state fair. Certainly, an insignificant animal reaches its audience with broadcast words. The keywords to express Wilbur were “Radiant” and then “Humble.” But the very beginning is telling, too. A little girl Fern (Dakota Fanning) finds an extra piglet and picks him up to save him. Dad (Kevin Anderson) tells her the facts, than pigs are farm animals, and she says, “It isn’t his fault that he was born little.” Existential – and leading to a point that at the end will lead to an argument for Gospel-style socialism. The very next seen, Mother (Essie Davis) is frying bacon. Later, the Mephistophelian rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi) will tell Wilbur the truth, that he is headed for the smoke house. There is a little play here on whether telling the truth is the right thing to do, or if it is just plain sadism.  


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