Unapolegetically French in its references yet universal in its humor, “Belleville Rendez-Vous” is a sardonic feast of narrative invention and graphic caricature that swings to a nostalgic beat. Comicbook artist and animator Sylvain Chomet follows his much-awarded animated short “The Old Lady and the Pigeons” with a genre-confounding feature debut that’s almost completely dialogue-free but graced with terrific sound design and a swell score. Helmer manages to meld the virtues of persistence, the faded glory of the music hall and Gaul’s peculiar passion for the Tour de France into one cogent, funny package, tweaking the French penchant for frog legs and the North American tendency toward obesity along the way. Destined for mainstream success in French-lingo and Euro-territories with solid arthouse berths elsewhere, pic is generating plenty of buzz in Cannes, where it preems out of competition.
Making seamless use of advances in animation technology while fully embracing the quirky expressiveness of its hand-drawn characters, pic is a low-key delight from start to finish. The spirits of both Jacques Tati and Gallic caricaturist Albert Dubout are obviously watching over venture’s meticulously calibrated yet leisurely comic timing and exquisite exaggeration of physical characteristics.
Pudgy, taciturn Champion is adopted by Madame Souza, his enterprising, incredibly short and club-footed grandmother. Nothing cheers Champion except his puppy Bruno and his tricycle.
As post-war construction radiating out from Paris overruns their suburban home, Champion — under his grandma’s patient tutelage — becomes an ascetically thin bicycle racer with huge leg muscles, and Bruno grows into a fat dog who barks at commuter trains.
Champion is bringing up the rear in a grueling mountain leg of the Tour de France, when two evil men in black kidnap him.
In a passage that’s an instant classic of deadpan incongruity and majestic animation, Madame Souza and Bruno follow Champion’s scent clear across the Atlantic to the bustling megalopolis of Belleville — a sort of cross between Manhattan and Montreal, circa the early 1960s.
There’s a heinous plot afoot — or rather, a-pedal. Madame Souza and Bruno may be penniless, but they’ll come to the rescue with the help of three eccentric old ladies, the once-celebrated Belleville Triplets who had a contagiously jaunty vocal hit in the 1930s.
Chomet pays tribute to his predecessors in the upper reaches of entertainment heaven and makes his own unmistakable mark as tale wordlessly sets up and fulfils its gags. Tone is a winning blend of dark and bittersweet, aimed more at adults than kiddies, but suitable for all ages.
Conceptual highlights include opening “newsreel” of the Triplets performing in their prime with such guest stars as Charles Trenet, Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker; Bruno’s black-and-white train themed dreams and the Triplets’ patented technique for coaxing frogs from their habitat for culinary purposes.
The work of three talented crews in France, Belgium and Canada, with additional animation in Riga, Latvia, yields a highly personal but wonderfully evocative universe. Benoit Charest’s wide-ranging score couldn’t be better suited to the visuals.
Post-credits “cookie” is adorable.