Dir: Sylvain Chomet. France-Canada-Belgium. 2003. 80mins
Trailing great advance word of mouth ahead of its Out Of Competition screening at Cannes, and heralded as a new departure for French animation, Belleville Rendez-Vous turns out to be a hugely inventive, visually-striking and often delightful story. However, it is let down by a stop-start storyline and the occasional tendency to allow scenes (and jokes) to run for longer than they should, even if the final running-time is at the bottom end of the feature range. Occasionally violent in the style of The Simpsons' Itchy & Scratchy, Belleville Rendez-Vous is otherwise destined to appeal more to adults than to children, and more to French audiences than anyone else, especially given the fact that cycle-racing is central to the story. Hopes of Shrek or even Chicken Run-like universal appeal are unlikely to be realised.
Director Sylvain Chomet studied in Angouleme (source of the new generation of French comic creators), but claims he found a better welcome for his animation in the UK and Canada. But Belleville ' co-produced with Canada along with Belgium, and with animation work from France, Canada, Belgium and Lithuania ' could hardly be more French if it tried.
Champion, a lonely orphan, who lives with his grandma, Mme Souza, in a tower-like house (where each storey seems to consist of a single room) just outside of Paris, has only two pleasures in life: a puppy called Bruno and his tricycle. Noting his interest in the latter, Mme Souza subjects the growing lad to a rigorous training schedule as a racing cyclist, which eventually gets him into the Tour de France. During a mountain stage of the race, however, Champion and two other cyclists are abducted by agents of the French Mafia and are shipped off to Belleville (a stylised New York, stunningly drawn by background artist Evgeni Tomov), where they are chained to a bizarre gambling machine in an old vaudeville theatre.
Mme Souza and Bruno commandeer a pedalo and set off in pursuit, eventually rescuing Champion with the help of the Triplettes of the (French) title, a now-elderly singing trio whom we had earlier seen on a TV show that was being watched by Champion and his grandma.
In what one takes to be a nod to international audiences, there is no dialogue between the characters, and the only speech is a form of quasi-French gibberish that issues from televisions (a speech by De Gaulle is especially choice), radios and, in the opening sequence, the Triplettes' Andrews Sisters-style song-and-dance routine.
Character animation is determinedly non-naturalistic, enabling (among other things) jokes at the expense of Champion's exaggeratedly-muscled cyclist's legs. But it is also curiously uninflected: Champion's expression hardly changes, and the wardrobe-like shape of the French Mafia's henchmen is another visual gag which limits rather than frees Chomet's hand.
The one real exception to this is Bruno the puppy, who grows into a huge lugubrious mutt with a passionate hatred for any form of railway, caused by Champion's toy train running over his tail when he is a puppy. Thus, when Paris expands to envelop Mme Souza's house and a railway runs past the upstairs window, Bruno is forever charging up to bark at trains ' a joke of which Chomet never seems to tire.
Prod cos: Les Armateurs, Production Champion, Vivi Film, France 3 Cinema, RGP France
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Scr: Sylvain Chomet
Art dir: Evgeni Tomov
Ed: Chantal Colibert Brunner
Music: Benoit Charest