It's been a rich couple of years for animated feature films. Disney's Pixar sensation Finding Nemo might be a finer blend of art and commerce than any of the current Oscar contenders starring actual humans, but most of the action is still outside the studios. There's the lovely, audacious philosophizing of Richard Linklater's cartoon for grownups, Waking Life, and the unique spectacle of Hayao Miyazaki's films, most notably Spirited Away. And now you can add to the list French comic-strip artist Sylvain Chomet's feature film debut, The Triplets of Belleville.
In a time when computer-generated 3-D images are dominating film animation, Chomet's largely hand-drawn, two-dimensional Triplets revels almost defiantly in old-fashioned artisanal craftsmanship and feels for more personal and intimate than typical Disney fare as a result.
Chomet's charming but almost ineffably odd little film opens with a thrilling black-and-white sequence set in a nightclub called "Belleville Rendezvous," where '30s jazz reverberates (the film is virtually dialogue-free but still packed with sound) and the frame pulses with movement. The crowd is full of enormous women and tiny men, and the entertainment includes Django Reinhardt (playing with his feet), Fred Astaire (wearing rabidly carnivorous tap shoes), and Josephine Baker, who shakes her bananas while dirty dancing, an act that transforms the men in the crowd into monkeys (?!?) who rush the stage and disrobe her. But the feature attraction of the show are the Triplets themselves, three lanky dames who thrill with a finger-snapping, hand-clapping rhythm routine.
We don't realize until the the frame pulls back a few minutes in that what we're watching is a television broadcast being viewed by our heroine, Madame Souza, and her orphan grandson, Champion, in their modest but cozy home in rural France.
Madame Souza is a warm-hearted, club-footed women who dotes on her sad little grandson. When she senses he is lonely, she buys him a puppy, the basset-hound-like Bruno. And when she notices his interest in the Tour de France, she buys him a tricycle.
The film flashes forward to its setting in the '50s (though its heart and soul remains in the '30s) as Champion has morphed, under his grandmother's loving eye and stern tutelage, from a pudgy little boy into a sleek cyclist, his bulging calves thicker than his slim abdomen. Champion (an Adrien Brody lookalike) is finally ready to compete in the Tour de France, and Madame Souza and Bruno (who has grown to about the size of a steer) are there to watch the race. But instead of watching Champion cross the finish line, they watch him be abducted by menacing, dark-suited, square-shouldered men (the French mafia, we later learn), who board a ship and take Champion across the ocean to Belleville for reasons that remain mysterious until nearly the end of the film. With Bruno's keen sense of smell to guide them, Madame Souza and her faithful canine sidekick cross the ocean to save the beloved grandson and master.
Chomet's Belleville is a lovably distorted French vision of a new-world metropolis, part Montreal, part New York. Skyscrapers tower over everything, and the populace is grossly overweight, a predicament explained by the preponderance of burger joints. (The Statue of Liberty in this city holds a burger rather than a torch.)
After landing in this strange new world, Madame Souza and Bruno somehow encounter the Triplets, elderly now but still boasting a mean hambone routine and the ability to bang-out a musical number -- Stomp-style --using common household items like a newspaper, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner.
Triplets of Belleville is so packed with detail that one viewing seems entirely insufficient to catalog its delights. It is beautifully drawn with a surreal sense of scale. And though the film is only 80 minutes long, it doesn't feel too short. It fills out its length by encouraging the kind of patient, observant viewing that most animated films discourage, such as peppering the action with seemingly meaningless bits of information only to have these hints bloom into full-blown comic moments later in the film.
And a final word on Bruno, maybe already one of my favorite screen characters. Dog lovers will adore him. Where most animals in animated films are anthropomorphized, Bruno is gloriously all dog. He organizes his days around the trains that run outside Champion's window, lying lazily in the kitchen until his internal clock tells him it's time to drag his enormous body up the stairs to dutifully bark at the passing train (a habit informed by an earlier trauma), after which he retires to the kitchen to wait for Champion and Madame Souza to come home and feed him. Such is life.
-- Chris Herrington
"Going through the motions." "Phoning it in." "Sleepwalking." "Slumming." Ah, yes. Slumming. That's the right way to put it.
After seeing Along Came Polly, I've been trying to hammer down a word that best describes what the actors were doing during its creation. While "phoning it in" certainly would do the trick, "slumming" is more specific. We know the actors can and should be engaged in better work, they know it, and yet nobody involved in the project seems overly concerned.
Jennifer Aniston is probably the friend from Friends with the most potential for movie superstardom. (Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry have the acting chops for character roles, whereas Aniston has the glint of leading lady in her eyes.) It would be nice if she had solid material as she works her way out of TV and into the film pantheon. Ben Stiller, however, is definitely slumming. He is already a solid movie star and can do better.
Stiller plays Reuben Feffer, a risk analyst for an insurance agency. He has a successful, paint-by-numbers life, and we meet him on his wedding day. (He's marrying Lisa, played by yet another small-screen-queen actress, Debra Messing, whose career-shopping should also veer out of the discount-script aisle.) With Reuben, everything is perfectly planned, meticulously orchestrated, and his bland, safe choice in a marriage partner (she's a dip) reflects Reuben's caution and trepidation. They honeymoon in St. Bart's, and day one isn't yet done when Lisa lets scuba instruction by hunky islander Hank Azaria get carried away. (They do it in their flippers! Ewwwww!) The honeymoon, as they say, is over, and Lisa, confused, decides to stay on the island for more advanced scuba work. Reuben slouches back home to figure out his carefully planned life in a new house without Lisa to help fill it.
Then, ALONG COMES POLLY! At a strange art opening (are those pink bunny faces on top of huge legs or something else?), he runs into an old middle-school chum, Aniston's Polly Prince, now a waiter. Reuben is rejuvenated by the chance meeting and feels ready to tackle dating again just two weeks after his honeymoon. Best pal Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a sycophantic former child star) advises against it. He knows Reuben well enough to know that the free-spirited Polly is bad news for an obsessive-compulsive like Reuben. But a first date occurs (with scatological ramifications after Reuben's irritable bowels encounter the cuisine of exotic Morocco) and an awkward courtship follows, with the attraction based on their polar personalities and Reuben's desire to conquer his nature as a play-it-safe wallflower.
In summary: Reuben's life is geared toward analyzing and avoiding risk. Polly is Ms. Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained. Oil meets watercolors.
This film is probably the most inconsequential exploration of the notion that "opposites attract" since Paula Abdul met MC Scat Cat in their classic MTV pairing. Barefoot in the Park it ain't. What a shame. Nobody does weird and uptight quite like Stiller, and Aniston's considerable charm as a screen persona comes mainly from how effortlessly she imbues her characters with likability. She's perfectly at home playing the faintly bohemian Polly -- the kind of character that, say, Sandra Bullock would and has played with garishly over-done results. If anything is to blame for why this movie doesn't hit its marks, it's the junky script by writer/director John Hamburg, 75 percent of whose screenwriting credits are similar Stiller vehicles.
We've seen it before. The first date ends horribly not so much due to the unfortunate consequences of Ruben's exotic meal that clog Polly's toilet. It ends horribly only when Reuben encounters a lack of toilet paper and solves the situation with antique hand towels and an expensive loofah. Who would do that? Not a highly paid risk assessor, who would certainly recognize salvation in "Hey, um, Polly? Do you have any more toilet paper?" The whole movie tries too hard in this manner, forcing laughs where chuckles would suffice if there were something substantial to cling to. There is not.
Hoffman and Alec Baldwin as a pushy boss manage to score some real laughs, but when a blind, sweater-wearing ferret appears continually as comic relief, we know we are in shallow waters. Ahoy. -- Bo List