Film: Grown-Up Stuff

Why does nobody make feature-length cartoons for adults? The commercial success of such TV series as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Dania, none of which is particularly child-friendly, suggests that they might well turn a good-sized profit. So does the fact that many of the animated features released in recent years, Finding Nemo, Lilo and Stitch, and Monsters, Inc. in particular, have drawn a significant number of unaccompanied adult viewers. Besides, most of the best animated short subjects of the past were pitched to— and relished by—a mixed audience. Chuck Jones didn’t make Duck Amuck for six-year-olds, nor were Rocky and Bullwinkle lobbing all those double-barreled puns at the heads of the toddler set. One-third of Cartoon Network’s viewers are between the ages of 18 and 34.

Given all this, you’d think Hollywood would see the logic in turning out feature films that don’t require expensive, temperamental stars or state-of-the-art special effects. Yet I can’t think of a single American animated feature since South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) that was aimed specifically at a mature audience (and South Park isn’t quite what I have in mind, either, “mature” though its four-letter dialogue may be). To be sure, Hollywood talks about making cartoons for grownups but never seems to get around to actually doing it.

For this reason, I was intrigued by the succes d’estime of Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville, a French-Belgian-Canadian animated feature that is nothing if not adult-oriented. Though it has yet to make it into the gigaplexes, just about every major film critic in America has raved about Triplets (94 percent of its reviews were positive, according to www., and it seems well on the way to becoming a full-fledged cult movie. Needless to say, cult movies rarely live up to their reputations, but The Triplets of Belleville is wonderfully funny, superbly well-made, unoppressively clever—and definitely for grown-ups only.

The plot, if not quite impenetrable, nonetheless defies easy synopsis, nor do its complexities have much to do with the film’s overall effect. Suffice it to say that The Triplets of Belleville revolves around a French bicycle racer who is kidnapped by the Mafia and spirited away to a city that bears a certain resemblance to Manhattan, from which he is rescued by his club-footed mother (who doubles as his coach), his dog (who, unlike most cartoon animals, is acutely thick-witted), and a trio of superannuated vaudeville singers who eat only frogs.

That’s all I’ll say, not in order to avoid giving away any surprises but for fear of discouraging you from seeing Triplets, which sounds exactly as off-beat as it is. Not only does the narrative unfold in a distinctly surrealistic manner, but the film contains next to no dialogue. As a result, you’ll get lost if you try to follow the plot too closely—and you’ll also be missing the point. From the witty caricatures of such illustrious artistes as Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire, and Glenn Gould (all of them amazingly sharp-eyed and knowing) to the innumerable references to celebrated movies of the past (I’ll let you pick them out), Triplets is crammed full of more witty detail than can possibly be absorbed in one sitting. You’ll need to see it twice, and you’ll want to.

Visually speaking, The Triplets of Belleville owes a lot to the late Chuck Jones. (Keep The Grinch Who Stole Christmas in mind and you’ll see what I mean.) The main difference is that Chomet is more inclined to grotesquerie occasionally bordering on outright grossness—than sentimentality. This gives Triplets an astringent flavor that serves as a counterpoise to its oh-so-French touches of whimsy, for me the film’s only weakness.

As a result, The Triplets of Belleville is unsuitable for viewing by small children, whom I suspect would have nightmares were they to see it. This sets Triplets well apart from the school-of-Pixar style of contemporary American animation and is doubtless the main reason why it has yet to go into wide release, though its uncategorizability is another problem. Aside from the fact that Triplets is a cartoon for grown-ups, it’s a foreign film (albeit dialogue-free) that’s shorter than usual (80 minutes). It doesn’t even look like a smiley-friendly animated feature—though Chomet and his collaborators have employed many of the same ultramodern digital animation techniques on display in Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of The Triplets of Belleville, since I’ve long had my doubts about digital animation. As I wrote about Finding Nemo in this space last year:

What bothers me are the fantastically elaborate, hyper-realistic backgrounds. They’re technically impressive, to be sure, but I couldn’t help feeling a nagging incongruity between the film’s characters, who are obviously animated, and their 3-D environment, which is just as obviously meant to look life-like…. I suspect this is no small part of the reason why Lilo and Stitch touched me, whereas Finding Nemo, good as it is, mostly only made me laugh.

The Triplets of Belleville, by contrast, is an eye-opening example of how digital animation can be employed in a non-naturalistic way that makes full use of the medium’s potential without falling into the trap of hyperrealism. It has completely changed my feelings about computer-assisted animation— though not about the expressive limitations of the Pixar style. I still think that Lilo and Stitch, which made richly imaginative use of hand-drawn characters and hand-painted backgrounds, was a better model for the next generation of cartoonists than anything Pixar has released to date. But as The Triplets of Belleville shows, it’s possible to use the new techniques rather than being used by them.

The other big animated feature of the current season, Disney’s Teacher’s Pet, is aimed at the kiddies, but it, too, shuns the Pixar look, opting instead for a combination of 1930s’ style hand-drawn animation and the low-budget “limited” animation techniques developed in the 1950s for use on television (the film, not surprisingly, is based on a popular TV series). The results are as visually fresh as The Triplets of Belleville, if cruder-looking. Would that the film itself were similarly appealing, but Teacher’s Pet, for all its blatant cleverness, is as coarsely knowing, punchline-heavy, and media-savvy as most of today’s animated features. It’s funny enough, I guess, but I’m sick to death of that kind of self-referential, smart-alecky humor.

On the other hand, I give Timothy Bjorklund full credit for steering clear of the other trap into which virtually every Disney feature falls nowadays: Teacher’s Pet is nothing if not unsanctimonious, containing none of the little commercials for tolerance now thought obligatory in children’s fare. Instead, Bjorklund serves up raucous, jeering comedy with a Borscht Belt tang. Nathan Lane even makes Spot, the dog who wants to be a boy, sound exactly like Max Bialystock in The Producers. It gets old—fast—but maybe I should be thankful for small favors.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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