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Behold a tale of true love (between a boy and a bicycle), of tireless courage (from a bitty grandmother with a club foot) and of a very shocking new definition of sexy (three wizened matriarchs who ravenously slurp down frogs). This is The Triplets of Belleville, an animated extravaganza of...

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Behold a tale of true love (between a boy and a bicycle), of tireless courage (from a bitty grandmother with a club foot) and of a very shocking new definition of sexy (three wizened matriarchs who ravenously slurp down frogs). This is The Triplets of Belleville, an animated extravaganza of Gallic wit and soul that delivers more wild humanity than many of the year's live-action features. In a word: Go.

Written, directed and designed with outrageous flair by Canadian Frenchman Sylvain Chomet (La Vieille dame et les pigeons, a.k.a. The Old Lady and the Pigeons), Triplets includes some familiar elements. Those who love Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's The City of Lost Children and Veit Helmer's Tuvalu will feel at "home" (if such a thing is possible) in the freakish megalopolis of Belleville. Fans of traditional 2-D animation from Betty Boop to Disney to Hayao Miyazaki to Bill Plympton will lap this up like ambrosia. Pixar newbies with dollar signs in their eyes may find this project's outrageously funky stylings a bit heavy on their more sterile, CG expectations, but there's still a big dopey dog and some high-tech wizardry to keep them jollified as well.

An ensemble piece, Triplets begins by introducing us to the eponymous trio in their 1930s heyday, when Gypsy jazz ruled and flappers still flapped. The three sisters (gorgeously voiced by Betty Bonifassi, Marie-Lou Gauthier and Lina Boudreault) perform a saucy opening number in a cabaret, which segues into a nostalgic television broadcast. Observing are strange little boy Champion and his humble grandmother, Madame Souza, who prefer gestures over words. Clearly the boy's only kin, Madame Souza attempts to set him on a productive track in music or the arts, but it's the bicycle that wins his heart. Well, that and the dim-witted little dog, Bruno.

The first act of the film is rather enchanting, for as Bruno grows (and grows), so does the urban sprawl around Paris, until eventually there's a train blaring directly by their humble home's window. This provides fodder for what Sylvain does best, which is to render the tiny moments of everyday life a spectacle of great humor and occasionally even awe. In this case, we wait with the dog as he thoughtfully examines the clock and prepares to fulfill his purpose: to bark insanely at every single train that passes the house (with bonus Doppler effects). Although wholly unrelated to plot, these seemingly "off-topic" touches make the movie.

As Champion grows up, hermetically sealed with his grandmother (a little uncomfortable, this), he commits to winning Le Tour de France. This provides a few somewhat icky aspects of grandma feeding the mature lad, kneading his bulging muscles and putting him to bed, but fairly soon Champion is prepared to earn his name. In a flurry of caricatures and grotesqueries (a window display composed of animated meat is particularly unsettling, if also typically French), Champion is off and peddling, his outrageously pointy nose wagging across the frame, his eyes wide with purpose.

Of course, in this story also lurks evil, in the form of a French gangster and his square-shouldered Mafiosi, who kidnap the weary Champion and other, equally bizarre-looking racers, for an unknown fate across the sea in big, scary Belleville. Suddenly, it's up to grandma and the big fat dog to rescue the gangly lad, which finally leads them to: our eponymous trio, now perhaps nonagenarians. It seems safe to say that there haven't been cooler old ladies in cinema in recent times. Crones who eat frogs, for the pagans! It would spoil too much to tell you of their antics, but let's say that their methods of preparing dinner may forever alter your perception of French cuisine, and their continuing musical adventures may transform household chores forevermore.

More than anything, Chomet and his animation accomplices (Pieter Van Houte, Jean-Cristophe Lie, Benoit Féroumont) and vital production designer (Evgeni Tomov) seek to deliver soulful atmosphere. They succeed, particularly when their visuals are married to the Django Reinhardt-inspired score by Ben Charest. There's also a nifty song at the end by some guy called "M," but research seems to indicate that this is not the same fellow who gave us the sensational single "Pop Musik."

There isn't much reason to quibble with Triplets. One could, perhaps, make a case that its view of humanity verges on ugly, as facial exaggerations lean toward the nightmarish. But whatever. The crux is that the movie is engrossing, charming and very sharp-witted. It may face stiff competition this year, but it could well be the finest animated film of 2003, if not one of the best in any category.

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