Our most popular movies -- and even some of our least popular -- are, to an increasing extent, animated movies. That's what "digital effects" means, even if people regard the photo-realistic animation underpinning films such as Lord of the Rings as something other than high-tech cartoons, in which bits of computerized information snare the jobs that scale models, puppets and stop-motion photography (e.g., Claymation) used to handle.
Likewise, more and more fully animated movies, the habitats of Shreks and Nemos, have in recent years ranked reliably high on both the box-office and critical charts, raising the profile of the genre. Most of them have been digitally rendered, too, often with a realism that works from the purely animated side of the live-vs.-cartoon schism and toward some middle where "real" and "imaginary" don't mean quite what they used to.
What all this signifies for the way we look at movies -- and at the world -- is still largely TBD. But I'd argue that artistically, at least, it's just as easy to misuse new technology as old, and that when we're talking cartoons, the sine qua non is still imagination. And my Exhibit A (much as I liked Shrek and Nemo) is Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville, a brilliant new feature-length film that ranges from the whimsical to the macabre, and captivates without resorting to cutesiness, stereotyping or a single Top 40 pop song.
Hell, Triplets barely has dialogue. It opens in black-and-white, on a crazy vintage music-hall show that suggests the fevered imagination and rhythmically fluid lines of Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer. A guitarist frets with his toes; a bare-breasted Josephine Baker bops about in syncopated sexuality; a suave Astaire-ish tap-dancer is attacked when his shoes grow demon-teeth and half-devour him onstage.
But that's just a prologue: What we're watching is actually a television in the kitchen of the elderly Madame Souza, a provincial Frenchwoman, and her plump, phlegmatic grandson. Their humble home looks dull by comparison, but Chomet is about to hurl them into a world equally fantastic.
Souza buys the uninspired boy a tricycle and a puppy. Jump ahead 15 years: The boy, named Champion, is training as a professional cyclist, with Souza coaching, and the dog, Bruno, a faithful if seriously overfed companion. When some ne'er-do-wells kidnap her grandson, Souza and Bruno follow the trail to the metropolis of Belleville, where three eccentric musical crones -- previously glimpsed as their younger selves, performing on that TV show -- turn out to be the near-mythical titular triplets. They take her in, share their diet of frogs, and prove unlikely but effective allies.
Chomet, a 40-year-old Frenchman living in Canada, pulls out all the stops for this, his first feature. Set in what looks like about 1960 (with DeGaulle on the tube), Triplets recalls the wry, observational, dialogueless humor of Jacques Tati along with more manic comedy styles; it's peopled by both gentle caricatures and grotesques worthy of animator Bill Plympton.
The diminutive Souza is potato-shaped, her eyes double-magnified by her round-lensed specs -- the characteristic clicking of which, when she adjusts them, are one aspect of the film's wonderfully detailed sound design. Meanwhile, tortoise-eyed, beak-nosed Champion has (like the other racers) bulging pullets for calves, a whippet-like torso and a face drawn tight as a mummy's with fatlessness and exhaustion. Bruno starts out a floppy pup and grows into an overstuffed armchair of a canine, with a moist underbite and spindles for legs; his surreal dreams explore his twin obsessions with locomotives and his food bowl. And there are looming, rectangular gangsters; their diminutive, tomato-nosed boss; a maitre d' who turns to literal rubber in his servility; and the inhabitants of Belleville, each of whom is (inexplicably) fat as a maison.
But Chomet's oddest -- and hence most characteristic -- invention is probably the triplets themselves. In a film whose hero is an indefatigable sports-coaching granny, these three grinning women burst most preconceptions: Unmistakably feminine (if in a decidedly idiosyncratic, frog-slurping way) and dauntless in the face of adversity and danger, they still find time to perform thrilling cabaret music, singing and playing improvised instruments including a wire refrigerator rack and a vacuum cleaner.
Chomet does not even attempt to explain how superannuated music-hall stars become action heroes. They simply do, and if this 80-minute film's got a weakness it's that its climax feels a little undercooked, and with its car chase and gunplay it's surprisingly conventional (though admittedly in a relative way).
But The Triplets of Belleville is so pleasurable it feels churlish to complain. Chomet's characters, thoroughly articulate without words, can move you in unexpected ways. Souza's pursuit-at-sea of the ship carrying the kidnapped Champion, for instance, is a deeply felt passage, perhaps partly because it's drawn in wide shot and never seems to strive for that effect.
By the way, although some of it is rendered in computer-aided 3-D animation, Triplets has a mostly traditional 2-D feel. Yet in this beautifully realized film, what really counts is not Chomet's toolbox, but his inimitable vision.