The Triplets of Belleville (French)

Animation was invented so that movies like “The Triplets of Belleville” could be made. It’s a perfect blend of outrageous visual humor, lovable caricatures and imaginative storytelling. There is practically no dialogue, but the story comes through as distinctly as if there had been reams of it. It’s the first movie in a long time that I wanted to watch again immediately as soon as it was over.

Written and directed with astonishing originality by Sylvain Chomet, the film opens with an insane ’40s-style black-and-white sequence set in a French nighclub at which the Triplets of Belleville (think the Andrews Sisters, but French) are singing. The surrealism of the piece — a Fred Astaire-type dancer’s shoes come to life and devour him, mid-performance — and the style of drawing used suggest Salvador Dali­ mixed with early Looney Tunes, all set to an infectious dance number.

Then we move ahead, a bit closer to the present and more in the realm of caricature, style-wise. Madame Souza, a squat, bespectacled old woman with one leg shorter than the other, has been watching the show on television with her young, sullen grandson. Seeking to cheer him up, she buys him first a puppy, then a tricycle. Both do him some good, and we flash forward a dozen or so years to see the boy now an outrageously muscled (but just as silent) cyclist preparing to enter the Tour de France with Grandma as his coach. (The puppy, meanwhile, has grown fat and lazy, though he does hurry upstairs every 15 minutes to bark at the train as it roars past the ramshackle old house.)

During the Tour de France, the boy and two other racers are abducted by the French Mafia and whisked away to the New York-style big city of Belleville, where they are to be used for nefarious underground deeds. Madame Souza and the dog, whose name is Bruno, pursue them as fast as their little legs can carry them, but soon lose the scent. As fate would have it, they encounter the triplets of Belleville, now very old but still performing regularly. They take Madame Souza and Bruno into their home and help them search for the missing boy.

There’s that old saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Well, it applies to “The Triplets of Belleville,” too. Writing about such a visual experience wouldn’t do any good. I could tell you the odd, quirky details — like the way one of the triplets catches frogs for the sisters to eat, or how a restaurant maitre d’ is animated so that his head is always bent forward or backward in alternating states of obsequiousness and haughtiness, or how everyone in Belleville (including its version of the Statue of Liberty) is hilariously obese — but then I’d just be giving everything away. You have to see this film — and truly LOOK at it — to appreciate what’s so fantastically entertaining about it. If you don’t smile all the way through it, then visit a physician at once, for you are dead inside. DEAD, I TELL YOU!

A (1 hr., 17 min.; in French (what little dialogue there is), without subtitles, but you don't need 'em; PG-13, an animated dancer's bare breasts, a bit of violence.)