When Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner shut down the company's Florida animation studio last month to focus more resources on its computer graphics division, many news articles hinted that this was the death knell for traditional animated features. With the remarkable success of Pixar's digital 'toons (such as last year's record-breaking Finding Nemo) and the simultaneous box-office implosion of Disney's old-fashioned animated films like The Emperor's New Groove or Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it was a no-brainer to assume that audiences have unanimously decided that they no longer like hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation. And seeing as how studio executives excel at no-brainer decision making, that was probably the criteria Eisner used to "maximize profits" by axing those pathetic, outdated illustrators down in Orlando.
But there's one deciding factor that many media pundits and Disney decision makers failed to consider in analyzing the whole sordid affair: Disney's animated features have mostly sucked while Pixar's have been mostly brilliant. Audiences made their choices based on which movies were better, not necessarily by what technology was used to make them. If Disney could have mustered the will to produce features with fresh stories, involving characters, witty dialogue, and delightful animation, then the company wouldn't now be in the position of abandoning the medium it helped originate: full-length animated features painstakingly drawn frame by frame. No, Eisner and his corporate drones would much rather blow $140 million on the monotonously formulaic Treasure Planet, and then conclude by its failure that CGI is now the only way to lure ticket buyers.
However, let's not forget that it's a big world out there, and hand-drawn features are still being produced in other countries where they're not yet considered anachronisms. Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki has been cranking out the masterpieces (such as 2001's Spirited Away) while youngsters such as Satoshi Kon expand the art form with sophisticated films like last year's Tokyo Godfathers. And now there's Canada-based Frenchman Sylvain Chomet, whose The Triplets of Belleville launches him to the front ranks of animators. Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, Triplets has been blanketed with praise for its brave stance against the tide of CGI (not to mention American cultural dominance).
No doubt about it, Triplets is a ravishing piece of animation. It presents images that are utterly unique, creating an unpredictable world that could only exist in animation. Its humor and characters recall silent films and the work of '50s French auteur Jacques Tati. It is bizarre, captivating, and beautiful.
So why is The Triplets of Belleville so oddly unfulfilling? I believe it has something to do with the fact that its story is nearly non-existentas if Chomet had made the whole thing up as he went along.
There's a longstanding debate among animation fans over whether scriptwriters corrupt cartoon creation. Some argue that it's the animators alone who ought to create the stories and gags, which is how many of the immortal Looney Tunes were made. They point to the Saturday morning pits of cartoon hell that were the '70s and '80s as evidence of what can happen when writers have more power than animators. While I generally agree with that theory (particularly for shorts), in the case of Triplets I do wish a capable writer had been charged with providing the film with a point, or maybe a theme or two. As it is, Triplets is a whimsical ride to nowhere in particular.
The story concerns Champion, a boy raised by his selfless grandmother, Madame Souza, to become a bicycle racer in what appears to be mid-20th century France. While racing in the Tour de France, Champion is kidnapped by the French Mafia and shipped across the Atlantic to Belleville where he must compete in deadly stationary cycle marathons. Aided by faithful dog Bruno and by an aged trio of 1930s dancehall singers called The Triplets of Belleville, Madame Souza rescues her boy. The end.
Don't worryI didn't really ruin the story for you, because that's not what Triplets offers. It is mostly a collection of one-of-a-kind images and amusing sight gags. Like the best silent comedians, Triplets' characters convey their personalities, thoughts, and emotions purely through body language and facial expressions. Entertainment is gleaned simply by watching them go about their business. Although Champion is pretty much a void (and is usually presented as little more than a horse in human form), the duo of Madame Souza and Bruno steal the show. Clubfooted Souza is an unstoppable force in her single-minded pursuit of Champion, while rotund Bruno is more dog-like than most actual movie dogs. Together, they let no obstacle stand in their way, not even the square-shouldered foot soldiers of the French Mafia. The bizarre Triplets, meanwhile, provide many acts of weirdness, such as their delight in eating skewered frogs fresh from the nearby bog.
In his portrayal of Belleville, Chomet offers at least a few morsels of satire, if not food for thought. With its Gothic skyscrapers and fat Statue of Liberty proudly hoisting a hamburger, Belleville comes across as a fusion of Quebec and New York City. But its citizens are most definitely American: obese, loud, hamburger-eating dorks. (I wonder if the cultural critics who condemned Lost in Translation's supposed crimes of ethnic stereotyping will raise the alarm against The Triplets of Belleville.) Amusing? Absolutely. Relevant to the story? Nah. Like so much of Triplets, these quirky details never coalesce into a substantive whole, and any themes that might've sprung from them quickly dissipate like Champagne bubbles.
If all you require from an animated feature are moments of whimsy, then The Triplets of Belleville is your movie. But I'm not so sure the film is a resounding repudiation of CGI animation so much as proof that true imagination is a rare commodity that will always delight. And if you can integrate that imaginativeness with a great storylike Pixar does, for instancethen you've really got something.