Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Laws of Physics in an Animation Universe

While some animated feature films strive for realism, others seem to do away with the restrictions of the real world completely in order to deliver a unique take on storytelling. Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville not only falls under this second category, it does so with refreshing creativity. Taking cues from early Fleischer Brothers animation and French comic books, Triplets breaks the rules of physics in order to create a world that caricatures our own. The laws of physics in The Triplets of Belleville are inconsistent, adding to its charm and originality. A deeper analysis, however, reveals that the film does not break the rules of physics randomly. In fact, the physics always change in favor of the protagonists, aiding them in times of peril while adding humor to the film’s otherwise darker themes.

Also known as Belleville Rendezvous, The Triplets of Belleville is a wacky transatlantic adventure filled jazz, bicycles, hand grenades, and the power of parental love. Madame Souza, the main protagonist, is a devoted grandmother to Champion, a sullen orphaned boy who grows up to be a contestant in the Tour de France. When the French Mafia kidnaps Champion as a part of their twisted gambling scheme, Madame Souza sets out to rescue his beloved grandson with the help of the Triplets of Belleville, a geriatric trio of Jazz-Age scat singers. Even before her daring rescue mission, Madame Souza displays feats of superhuman strength. It is worth noting that while her actions may seem ordinary when taken out of context, they are remarkable considering her old age and that her right foot is significantly shorter than the left. Nevertheless, she is able to keep up with her grandson’s bicycle training effortlessly, riding along on her tricycle on cobbled streets sloping 45 degrees steep. She maintains a steady pace as she pedals uphill, showing no signs of struggle while her grandson pushes forward slowly. She seems to defy gravity because her weight appears constant regardless of the direction in which she is traveling. A character moving upward against gravity should gain weight, or at least appear to do so, but Madame Souza does not. Champion, on the other hand, is visibly heavier  and slower as he pedals along the same steep slopes.

Madame Souza’s superhuman strength can also be seen when she finally sets out to rescue her grandson. Spending her last franc on a flimsy plastic pedalo, she goes after Champion’s captors, braving rough storms and tidal waves. Yet again she does so with relative ease. She pedals her way across the entire Atlantic Ocean, against the current, without being swept off course or losing track of the ocean liner she is chasing. She actually manages keep up with the ship, just as she did with Champion during their training sessions. As impressive as this may seem, the sheer power behind Madame Souza’s legs is most apparent at the end of the film when she stops a speeding car using only her foot. Fed up with being chased by the relentless French Mafia, she decides to face them head on, sticking her foot out in their path essentially  causing the car to “trip” over and crash. This break from reality is as convenient as it is comical. The rules of physics are broken in order to give Madame Souza a fighting chance the against numerous gun-wielding mafiosi chasing after her. Yet, superhuman strength and durability are not unique Madame Souza. Her allies, the Triplets and Bruno the dog, also have their moments of physical shenanigans. Earlier in the chase, the Triplets are able to turn the cycling machine around tight corners by reaching out and holding onto street signs, using their arms as a pivot. Because the cycling machine is obviously much heavier, the Triplets’ spindly arms would break if this was attempted in the real world. The laws of physics in Chomet’s animated universe ignore the effects rotational inertia on both the cycling machine and the Triplets. The amount of torque required to turn such a heavy object is far greater than the tensile strength of the Triplets’ arms. Finally, during the race leading up to Champion’s capture, the medical van on which Madame Souza and Bruno are riding gets a flat tire. Undeterred, Madame Souza uses Bruno as a spare tire when the van driver fails to fix the problem. Bruno bites onto the axle, and they drive away while he remains completely unharmed.

Another example of Belleville’s conveniently inconsistent physics is in its portrayal of explosions. Once again, the difference lies in the situation under which the explosives are used. When one of the triplets goes frog hunting by throwing a hand grenade in a nearby pond, the explosion ejects the water vertically in a contained cylindrical column, instead of up and outward in a more violent conical spray. The explosion also does no damage to the triplet herself, despite the shallow water and her being only about seven feet away. In contrast, when the same hand grenade is used against the French Mafia, the resulting explosion is visibly more destructive. The theater catches fire while the Triplets and Madame Souza manage to get away unscathed. Even Bruno, who is also only a few feet away from the explosion, is spared. The chase scene that ensues contains most of the film’s physical gags.

The French Mafia face several obstacles in their pursuit of Madame Souza and the Triplets. In such a dire situation, the protagonists are lucky that the laws of physics are on their side. They make their escape using yet another hand grenade to blast open an exit on the theater’s brick wall. Unsurprisingly, the explosion leaves the protagonists without a scratch. This is when the laws of physics go from flexible to completely irrelevant. At one point during the chase, one of the Mafia cars crashes into a baby stroller; the car is completely destroyed while the stroller remains safe and sound, as if nothing had happened at all.

The Triplets of Belleville shows that breaking that laws of physics can be an exciting new way to tell a story. Grounding the physics in an animated universe in reality lends believability, but bending the rules is necessary in creating a unique and entertaining world in which an audience can fully immerse themselves.

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