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Movie Reviews:

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Movie Reviews

This is only the second movie review I've done in this blog (the previous being my review of Lost in Translation), but considering how often I watch movies, not to mention how much I enjoy doing so, this likely won't be the last.

That being the case, I've decided to come up with a thematic rating system. This is the basic unit of measurement: The Cute White Rat.

Movies will be rated from 1 to 5 Cute White Rats, with 5 CWRs being absolute masterpieces, and 1 CWR being extremely bad. Occasionally, I might give a truly horrendous movie half a CWR, but such a shameful rating would only be deserving for true cinematic crimes against humanity, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, or pretty much anything the Wayans brothers have done.

Now that you understand the new system, on with the review.

Les Triplettes de Belleville (the Triplets of Belleville)

The Triplets of Belleville is a joint French-Belgian-Canadian effort directed by Sylvain Chomet. It received Academy Award nominations for both best animated feature and best original song.

And right out of the gate, I've made my job difficult by making this movie the first review under my rating system. This movie seems to have an uncanny ability to defy any sort of conventional rating system. It was wonderful and brilliant, and at the same time, highly disappointing.

To be fair, perhaps my expectations of the movie coloured my judgement. I was expecting an animated Brazil or City of Lost Children -- something absolutely bizarre. Certainly, the movie fits the bill visually; Chomet's characters are delightfully twisted, his backdrops eerie and surreal. The animation style is careful, methodic, real, and improbable, all at the same time. This is about as far from Disney as you can get without wandering into the world of Anime. But story-wise, it just doesn't quite make the cut, and although the plot follows a twisted version of logic all its own, that version just isn't quite different enough from the conventional to make it worthwhile.

I guess you could say that the movie, to me, resounded of wasted potential. On almost all points it just didn't go far enough. It begs to be a work of genius, but instead it becomes merely smart. It could have been outright bizarre; instead, it ends up merely eccentric. The satire could have been biting, but instead it merely nibbles. At the beginning, it hints at a byzantine plotline but then falls into a story that is lazily simplistic (if improbable). It could have been grotesquely beautiful, but instead it's just kinda strangely pretty. It has points during which it is captivating, and points that it's full of inertia, but at other times it's simply boring and lifeless.

Yet, it's the only movie I've ever seen, or am ever likely to see, Fred Astaire getting eaten alive by his own dancing shoes. That's gotta be worth something, right?

On its face, this is the story of Mrs. Souza and her grandson, Champion. Losing his father and mother at a very early age, Champion is a listless and unhappy child. Mme. Souza does what she can to spark the fire of life in the boy, offering him piano lessons, a puppy (later to become the charming, overfed dog, Bruno), and toys. None of them work. Then, she discovers in him a love for cycling, and buys him a bicycle. Suddenly, cycling, and his dream of racing in the Tour De France, takes over his life.

Unfortunately, Champion gets caught up in the machinations of a sinister group of underworld figures, and is abducted and brought to Belleville, America. Mme. Souza crosses the ocean in search of him in what has to be the most moving, majestic scene in the movie. There, she befriends the Triplets of Belleville, three aging music-hall stars hailing from the salad days of Belleville, and the four (plus the loyal dog Bruno) endeavour to rescue Champion from a fate worse than death. Well, okay, maybe not worse than death. But I digress.

The resulting product is certainly odd. That's good. It also smacks of genius, though again, it doesn't use this genius to its full potential. Some of the satire and the metaphors are a little too heavy-handed for my taste -- for instance, I would have caught on the cyclist-race horse metaphor without the overt horse sounds. Am I really that much cleverer than the target audience, that the director felt the need to be so blatant? I doubt it.

The tombstone in the vertical pan of the city of Belleville, though, was a very nice touch.

Thematically, the movie works on a couple of levels. On the literal level, this is a story akin to Finding Nemo, about a parent desperately searching for a lost child. We empathize with Mme. Souza in her quest to find Champion. When she discovers she can't even afford to eat in that strange, too-large megalopolis of Belleville, we grow anxious for her.

Beyond this immediate level, though, there exists a deeper caricature of society, particularly of the western variety. Of course, this should strike no one by surprise, since everybody and his dog does society-caricatures these days. But this one actually works; it's hard not to smirk when the movie presents you with the image of a terribly obese Statue of Liberty, and although the film later explains it away, for a while the way the Triplets worship their material possessions stands in as brilliant (if typically heavy-handed) satire that can't help but make you laugh.

Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the movie's cannibalistic look at the concept of celebrity -- besides the already-mentioned devouring of Fred Astaire, the way the cyclists are treated by the crime ring, and the way the Triplets have grown old and become (largely) forgotten also speak to a particularly bleak view of the topic.

One aspect of the movie that does not disappoint in any way is the music. The main score, Belleville Rendezvous, is done by Benoit Charest and he really outdoes himself here. I'm almost as sorely tempted to pick up the soundtrack as I was with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and that's saying a lot since I generally don't buy much music these days. Regardless, the music could not have fit the movie better -- visually and thematically, it's perfect.

Les Triplettes de Belleville is original and quirky enough that it's hard not to enjoy it on some level, but it's also hard to escape the feeling that Chomet lacked the courage (or, perhaps, merely the funding) to push the envelope too far. If this were a fifteen-minute short film, or given an extra fifteen minutes and a more imaginative storyline, it would have been astounding, easily achieving 5 out of 5 Cute White Rats. Instead, it receives only three and a half -- good, but it could have been so much more.

3.5 CWRs

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 11:40 a.m.


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