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Slick chicks: The Triplets of Belleville.

Loony Toon
By Shawn Stone

The Triplets of Belleville
Directed by Sylvain Chomet

The delightful animated feature The Triplets of Belleville begins with an anarchic, ’30s-style black-and-white prologue introducing us to the titular singers—three sisters belting out close-harmony swing in a nightclub—and sets a wonderfully weird tone. Fred Astaire is attacked by his own shoes. Django Reinhardt plays guitar with his feet. Josephine Baker gets the men in the club so hot and bothered, they turn into monkeys, storm the stage and devour her banana costume. All the while, the unconcerned triplets keep singin’ and swingin’.

One of the many pleasures of cartoons created in the long-ago and faraway era before TV is that they weren’t strictly intended for children. Horny skeletons chased Betty Boop to the hot jazz sounds of Cab Calloway. Hilariously tormented or confused characters—including “stars” like Daffy Duck and Porky Pig—committed suicide as a comic punchline. From Tex Avery’s buxotic Red in the Red Hot Riding Hood series to the borderline obscene sight-gags that pop up regularly in Bob Clampett’s ’40s masterpieces, these darkly funny takes on sex and violence made animation a pleasure for adults. Sure, there’s plenty of contemporary Japanese anime for grownups, but most of it is sci-fi or action, not comedy. French director Sylvain Chomet’s bizarre Triplets lives up to its wacky prologue, and revives, honors and extends this subversive comic tradition. And, since it’s rated a sort-of family-friendly PG-13, it’s great for the kiddies, too.

The story is about a sad-eyed boy named Champion who lives with his grandmother and dog on the outskirts of Paris. His one happiness is his bicycle, so grandma encourages and supervises a training regimen that, as years pass, makes Champion into a contender for the Tour de France. Fate, in the form of the French wine mafia (their motto is In Vino Veritas) intervenes, however, and Champion is kidnapped and taken across the sea to “Belleville” for reasons too strange to explain. Grandma and pooch follow, and have the great luck to meet up with the now-elderly triplets, who help in the search for the lost Champion.

The triplets are a brilliant creation—three senior chicks who still have rhythm, consider themselves sexy and are blithely unconcerned that the world has not only passed them by, it’s turned into something rotten. They’re too cool for school. They don’t make the best of what they have, they make like what they have is the best. This includes roasted, boiled, skewered or frozen frogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The characters are wittily drawn: Champion looks like something out of Ren & Stimpy, with a grotesque biker’s body and long French nose; the mafia dudes are walking, box-shaped goons; the dog is all flesh and nose; and there’s a fawning waiter so obsequious that he’s incapable of standing up straight. The backgrounds are endlessly fascinating. There’s no dialogue, either, so there are no subtitles for Americans to squirm through.

The process of finding and freeing Champion is absurd and inventive, and the ending, while happy, is not too sweet. And that’s something—just extracting the excess sugar from the story makes Triplets notable.

Love and Barf

50 First Dates
Directed by Peter Segal

Reuniting The Wedding Singer sweethearts Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, 50 First Dates managed a Valentine’s Day massacre of the cineplex competition. But date-night moviegoers be warned: You’ll have to wait out a substantial amount of crud before this lowbrow comedy gets its fluffy ingenuity in gear. The worst part is the entire first half, starting with a homage to the studly allure of Henry Roth (Sandler), a marine veterinarian on Maui who womanizes vacationing lonely hearts. He meets his match in short-term romance when he falls for Lucy (Barrymore), a cheerful art teacher who can’t form short-term memories. The best part of the film is how it sails to a happily-ever-after without cheating on its flimsy premise.

Since the film features Sandler in affable, rather than obnoxious mode (Peter Segal, director of Sandler’s Anger Management, takes the opposite tact here), there’s a menagerie of other characters to provide with the film with gross sight gags (such as copious projectile vomiting from a sarcastic sea lion), puerile mockery, and crude one-liners. Henry’s assistant, a horny Russian bisexual (Lusia Strus), gets the worst of it (including the high-velocity vomit), but Rob Schneider as a horny Hawaiian pool cleaner is also on hand for unfunny cut-ups, mostly concerning his privates. And the gutter-mouth comments from an old Hawaiian man aren’t nearly as adorable as the director seems to think. Even so, the film’s calculated blend of cutesy and tacky has its moments (most of them belonging to Henry’s pet penguin), and Sandler and Barrymore are in sweetly childish synch. Henry hits on Lucy in a café over waffles and is unexpectedly smitten. At their next breakfast rendezvous, however, he’s firmly rebuffed by Lucy, who has no clue who he is (a year previous, her short-term memory was demolished in a car accident). Due to the patently ridiculous precautions of her protective father and steroid-addled brother (a slumming Sean Astin), Lucy isn’t aware of her condition, or even the passing of time.

And so Henry must woo her from start over and over again, a challenge he takes on with increasing decency and devotion. The film’s preposterous concept—taken from Groundhog Day but sans the metaphysics, or any other higher function—is played out with a nonchalant sincerity that works surprisingly well. Henry spends inordinate amounts of time creating videotapes to fill Lucy in as to the progress of their relationship, and by date 23, he’s convinced that she’s subconsciously remembering him. At this point, their oddly trusting relationship pulls the film back from the offensive line of crap culture. Barrymore’s radiant insouciance brings out the winsome best in Sandler’s smarmy simplicity, while the film’s marginal charm is due solely to her ability to blithely deflect the vulgarity she’s surrounded by. The audience should be so lucky.

—Ann Morrow

Mission: Improbable

Catch that Kid
Directed by Bart Freundlich

Because, generally speaking, American audiences won’t bother to see anything remotely “foreign,” Hollywood can Yankee-fy countless European films, with appropriate changes of venue and character names. Such is what happened with Catch that Kid, a shot-by-shot remake of a 2002 Danish movie, directed with a workmanlike attitude and little enthusiasm by Bart Freundlich. Despite its swiped origins—funny considering it’s a bank-heist movie—Kid is a somewhat pleasing fantasy for the youngster set.

Tomboy Maddy (Kristen Stewart) is obsessed with climbing; she rappels up the side of her town’s water tower on an almost daily basis, while the boys at the nearby go-cart track, owned by Maddy’s father Mr. P. (Sam Robards), silently admire her cool ability and latent good looks. Two such admirers, grease monkey Gus (Max Thieriot) and computer geek Austin (Corbin Bleu), are her particular best friends, but also guys that she, in her burgeoning maturity, seems at the precipice of dumping, especially given their continuing attempts to get her interested in boring matters like “Which of us would you like to have as a boyfriend?” Unfortunately, Maddy has to use her hormonal influence over Gus and Austin in order to enlist their aid in robbing a bank to get money for Mr. P’s life-saving operation.

Yes, dear reader, the information in that last sentence seemed to come out of nowhere, and indeed, except for Mr. P’s telltale waving away of “another one of those headaches,” the onslaught of sudden, incurable illness and Mrs. P’s (Jennifer Beals) frantic efforts to raise the $250,000 necessary for its remedy, feels contrived, not so much because it’s yet another movie mystery illness, but because we haven’t gotten enough of a feel for the supposed friendship and camaraderie shared by the three preteens. Given that, when Maddy coolly tells each of the boys, separately, that she loves him and only him, it comes across not so much as a childish prank born of extreme necessity, but of something crass and far more disturbing for a girl of Maddy’s age to pursue.

Again, given the lack of background into Maddy’s, Gus’ and Austin’s friendship, their pre-heist planning and the actual execution of the theft itself feel hollow. Gus and Austin could be anybody, really, whom Maddy could have convinced to come along for a share of the dough. The only truly funny, believable shtick that occurs is when Maddy, on orders from a frazzled Mrs. P., has to baby-sit her toddler brother Max on the night of robbery. At one point, the security strobe seems to go kerflooey, creating momentary panic for Gus and Maddy—turns out Max, sitting on Austin’s knee at the control panel, has gotten hold of the multibuttoned gizmo, and is having the time of his life with it.

There’s a sour taste to this movie, as if Freundlich couldn’t be bothered to make it click. This is too bad, since it clearly has winning elements. What I liked most of all was the fact that Maddy, Gus and Austin seem like real kids, the kind we saw in, say, ET, who ride bikes (or, in this instance, go-carts) and hang out outdoors (as opposed to the mall), and who dress like children who have never heard of Abercrombie & Fitch or Britney Spears.

—Laura Leon


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