Offbeat French Cartoon Hopes for Oscar Gold

If Sylvain Chomet (searchhas his way, three cartoon women making music from a vacuum cleaner and refrigerator will perform at the Oscars.

Chomet directed "The Triplets of Belleville," (searchwhich is nominated for best animated film and best song. As Sunday's awards show approached, he was negotiating with producers to have his cartoon heroes perform the song rather than a well-known musician.

Such a scenario, the French animator says, would surely captivate Oscar viewers jaded by too many standard song-and-dance numbers, as well as capture his cartoon's delightfully weird spirit. "Triplets" is virtually devoid of dialogue, so music and song become another character alongside the trio of three elderly scat singers who help a resourceful grandmother find her kidnapped grandson.

"I always say animation is 50 percent image, 50 percent sound," Chomet said during a recent phone interview. "The triplets became the triplets with the help of the music. It's simple and alive, beautiful and silly."

"Triplets" is competing for best animated film against odds-on favorite "Finding Nemo," (searcha blockbuster computer-generated tale of a clownfish's relentless search for his lost son. But if there were to be a "jaw dropper" upset, said Tom O'Neil (search), author of "The Movie Awards," "Triplets" is best poised to pull it off.

"Oscar voters are not afraid to take a chance on a kooky, arty animated film," said O'Neil, noting the Japanese film "Spirited Away" upset the Disney hit "Lilo and Stitch" at last year's Academy Awards.

This year, the race is even more intriguing because both contenders are admired for their artistic achievements. And although far fewer moviegoers have seen "Triplets," it has been a favorite of critics.

"It's appreciated for the artistic chances that it takes," said O'Neil, whose Web site tracks awards-show predictions. "It's weird, artistic brilliance."

The film blends hand-drawn animation with computer-generated imagery, resulting in intricate backdrops and wildly imaginative depictions of the human form. It's rated PG-13 because it contains some frightening scenes and cartoon nudity, but Chomet believes it's acceptable for the whole family.

Its other oddities include a bizarre plot all but impossible to summarize, black-and-white sequences depicting a dog's dreams and cliched images of obese residents of Belleville, a New York-like city whose residents include chain-smoking, frog-eating Frenchmen.

Chomet says he revels in creating such a world.

"What's fantastic about caricatures is you can go to extremes, and the more extreme the more funny it is," says the 40-year-old director. "I put the American cliche about the French and the French cliche about the Americans in this film to say, 'Let's have a big laugh about ourselves."'

And then there's that catchy theme music nominated for the best original song. At the heart of it are sounds from a vacuum cleaner that composer Benoit Charest (searchhas named "mouf mouf."

The song has kept many a moviegoer humming well after leaving the theater -- despite the perplexing, nonsensical lyrics.

Chomet said he created the song with his British wife, incorporating onomatopoeic sounds with words from both their native languages.

The refrain goes: "Singing Belleville rendezvous. Marathon dancing doop dee doo."

"It's bizarre and it doesn't mean anything," Chomet says, "just like the triplets."