June 20, 2006
During the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003, the right half of American popular culture was having a field day with a simple premise: the French aren't like Americans. Curiously, the best proof of that theory actually came from France (with a little help from Canada and Belgium)—Sylvain Chomet's animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville.

Triplets was the very opposite of the American animated feature: it had almost no dialogue; it was content to move at a languid pace; its nods to celebrities were to Josephine Baker and her 1920s contemporaries. Near the end, it parodies that most American of movie tropes, the car chase.

Champion, as well as a few other Tour de France cyclists, have been kidnapped and put to work on a strange contraption for a Belleville mob boss; they pedal on stationary bicycles while staring at a projection of the open road before them, each driving tiny metal cyclist avatars. Champion's grandmother Madame Souza, their dog Bruno and the titular triplets manage to free the machine from its moors, sending it crashing through the wall and slowly, grindingly, driving through the streets. The mob boss's enforcers—stone-faced, slab-like hulks of men—give chase in their cars.

From the moment the miscreants peel out of the building, we're treated to unmistakeable Car Chase Music. This shouldn't be any kind of contest, but the narrowness of the streets and the absurd length of the villains' cars keep them from driving too quickly. They, and the contraption, only seem to pick up speed when they catch a nice downhill slope. For the most part, this is a low-speed chase.

Still, the bad guys have guns (and, at one point, a rocket launcher) and the good guys don't. But during the chase half of the baddies are taken out or thwarted by various car-chase clichés. Trucks, trains, difficult corners and obscured windshields lead to amusing crashes and explosions, though the best is the takeoff on the old woman-pushing-the-baby-carriage bit: after one car narrowly misses the pram, the second one slams right into it—jostling the baby and totalling the car.

That gag is the link to what defeats the rest of the bad guys: their very cartooniness. Like the rest of the movie, the car chase is a love letter to animation. The cars are drawn with absurdly long front ends, with the driver and passengers way in the back, often with gunmen sticking out of the sun roof. The cars are drawn to look like the center of gravity is way in the back (especially with the monolithic enforcers), and so it is. In several instances, the wrong curve or the wrong incline sends a car over a bridge, a stairway, or tumbling end over end down a hill. And when Madame Souza takes out the last car by tripping it with her heavy shoe, we know it's impossible—but the drawings and the believable depiction of weight completely convince the audience.

The Triplets of Belleville
Les Armateurs/Production Champion
Buy The Triplets of Belleville from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

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Comments:
This was one of my favourite parts of that film. Some reviewers just didn't get, and complained that the car chase wasn't exciting enough. That was the whole point!

It's interesting how the humour in "Triplets" is sometimes really subtle - often, you're not quite sure whether it is there or not. The exception is of course the many caricatured characters that populate the film.


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