It's a French animated film, powered almost entirely by eccentricity. I like it a lot, but it's deeply odd.
Firstly, it's dialogue-free. Words are sometimes spoken, but that's just background noise like a Charles de Gaulle TV broadcast or Tour de France commentators. Music's crucial, though.
Secondly, it's not worrying too much about the narrative. There's a sort of a plot, in which Madame Souza goes to rescue her bicycle-riding grandson from gangsters, but for the most part it's really about Chomet's love of observation and weirdness. He has a fetish for deformity, albeit often self-induced through obesity or a freakish physical regimen. America in particular is the Land of the Beached Whales, with mountains of blubber waddling up the sidewalk and even having fat silhouettes on traffic signals.
Don't worry, though. Chomet's being just as extreme in France too. This is a film of caricatures, in which realism would look as out-of-place as a Picasso in an exhibition of Constables. What's interesting though is how specific these caricatures are. The French faces look recognisably French. Americans look American. The film (set in 1957) is including real people like five-times Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil, accordionist Yvette Horner and guitarist Django Reinhardt. No, I'd never heard of them either. The film also starts with a musical sequence animated in 1930s Betty Boop style with Fred Astaire and a topless Josephine Baker. Then there are the humans who are animals, such as horse-faced cyclists who whinny and the mouse-like Italian engineer who squeaks.
It's fantasy, but at the same time it's both accurate and specific. It also looks distinctive, with a range of styles that's normally centred around watercolours and a slightly scratchy line that looks more like raw pencils than the slick inks you expect from animation.
Is it entertaining? Yes, but in an unusual way. Chomet would make me laugh just by being Chometty, so for instance Madame Souza's massage techniques and the frog-fishing are amusing because they're eccentric. Her solution to a missing tyre is laugh-out-loud funny too. Chomet's also not trying to make his film endearing or cute. No one here is beautiful. That would be boring. On the contrary, Madame Souza's life with her grandson is grey and dreary, for instance, and Chomet thinks that's much more interesting. He's relishing the green sludge she serves for dinner and their fat dog's solemn duty to bark at trains. He'll do horrible things to frogs. He'll show us a dog's black-and-white dreams.
I wouldn't dare guess how well this film will play with children. It's probably impossible to generalise. Will they like it because it's driven by music and visuals, or else be turned off by the fact that it's not bright and jolly and by the patience required to follow the story? It's certainly not leading its audience by the hand, unlike Pixar. You've got to pay a different kind of attention. Its heroine is an inarticulate lump of a little old lady, who doesn't communicate except by making noises at you and whose facial expressions are filtered through milk-bottle glasses. However that said, I bet kids will love the climactic chase sequence, in which lots of gangsters' cars get imaginatively trashed. You'd almost call it slapstick, except for the gangsters' implied deaths. That 1930s-style musical opening is also an attention-grabber, with awesome dancing and Fred Astaire getting eaten by his carnivorous shoes.
Is it a good film? Obviously, yes. It was Oscar-nominated, both for Best Animated Feature and for Best Original Song ("Belleville Rendez-Vous"). Sounds fair enough to me. It's different, anyway. The music's fun and the film's certainly loaded with personality, enough that it can even throw in outright digs at America and have them go almost unnoticed among all the Chomettiness. There's an obese Statue of Liberty and some anti-Disney gags like an unflushed turd shaped like Mickey Mouse. I was thinking of giving this as a Christmas present to a family with a young child and I'm now having second thoughts, but on the other hand I'm definitely going to hunt down Chomet's new film, The Illusionist.
Odd, but recommended.