There are some works of animation that are notable for their realism, for conjuring imaginary worlds whose inhabitants — the sea creatures in “Finding Nemo,” the witches and princesses in classic Disney fairy tales, the wide-eyed heroines of Japanese anime — move in more or less plausible ways through fantastical settings. Others — the cartoons of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones come to mind — rewrite the laws of physics and the conventions of physiology to suit their own fanciful requirements.
Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature, “The Triplets of Belleville,” the first feature film by Sylvan Chomet, surely belongs in the second category. Chomet's is a universe of sheer impossibility, where size, proportion and balance are ruled by the whims of his perverse pen and peculiar imagination.
The film's two lines of intelligible dialogue have been dubbed into English since it was shown, to rapturous applause, at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Its sensibility, however, remains irreducibly French, and it may confuse audiences used to the cuddly multicultural moralism that defines American feature-length animation.
The overture is a black-and-white spectacle: naughty, exuberant and a little creepy. It evokes Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire (eaten by his own shoes) and introduces the Triplets of the title, a trio of gangly, cloche-wearing scat singers. (They sing the movie's theme song, a swinging piece of Oscar-nominated nonsense likely to stick in your head for hours after you leave the theater.)
These celebrities turn out to be images flickering on a battered television set that belongs to Madame Souza, an old woman with thick glasses and orthopedic shoes who lives in a rickety building with her orphaned grandson, Champion. He is a gloomy, tubby boy who smiles only when his grandmother presents him with a tricycle, a gift that foreshadows his eventual transformation into a gaunt, sad-eyed Tour de France bicyclist with hypertrophied calves and thighs.
The story is too bizarre and wonderful to summarize, but it leads Madame Souza to Belleville, a Manhattan-like dream city populated by obese hamburger eaters, cretinous Boy Scouts, and a diminutive red-nosed French mafia chieftain. Belleville is also the home of the Triplets, now ancient, who subsist entirely on frogs and frog byproducts and who make infectious music out of household appliances and carefully preserved newspapers.
“Triplets” is a similar collage of the found and the invented. Its style evokes a postwar France making its stubborn, eccentric way into the modern world, a nation of chain-smoking truck drivers and accordion-squeezing pop singers, presided over by Charles de Gaulle, whose beaked, chinless profile is mirrored in many of the film's faces, including Champion's. Mr. Chomet, who dedicated the film to his parents, clearly feels some nostalgia for the mixture of worldliness and parochialism that defined the bygone France. And it is possible to detect, in his view of the fleshy Bellevilleans, a whiff of Gallic disdain for the gigantism of American culture.
The twisting of cultural stereotypes has long been part of the cartoon heritage; think of the amorous Pepe le Peu, for example. In any case the tether that connects Chomet's imagined world with the real one is long and loose. He is a master of surprise, terror, silliness and sheer eccentricity, and this compact movie is stuffed nearly to bursting with astounding sequences: Madame Souza setting out in the moonlight, by pedal boat, in the wake of a giant ocean liner; her dog, Bruno, dreaming in black and white; one of the triplets hunting frogs with an hand grenade.
The Smith Opera House screens “The Triplets of Belleville” at 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, Feb. 26 and 28, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 29. With a running time of 80 minutes, this film is rated PG-13 for images involving sensuality, violence and crude humor. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3. Call 781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to pre-order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.