The French animated import Ernest & Celestine manages to dispel two related myths. The first of these, encouraged by so many thoughtpieces on the juvenile status of American animation, stuck in an eight-decade reliance on the codes established by Walt Disney’s cartoons, is that foreign animation is somehow inherently more mature and grown-up than homegrown stuff. This is emphatically untrue of Ernest & Celestine, which is as much a “kids’ movie” as anything that Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks of Blue Sky has put out in a decade.
The other myth is that kids’ movies are merely that – movies best or even solely enjoyed by kids, with maybe some feeble gesture in the direction of keeping their parents barely amused. This is emphatically untrue of Ernest & Celestine. Certainly, if some farcical complication on the model of an ‘80s adventure comedy put me in control of children, I’d be hugely enthusiastic about putting them in front of the film, which is very warm and sweet, with an unmistakable moral about accepting people who aren’t like you, fleshed out by deeply appealing characters. But I don’t have those children, and without any such excuse, I’m still hugely enthusiastic about the thing; warmth, sweetness, and well-meant life lessons aren’t solely the province of the very young, after all.
Adapted from a series of books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, the film depicts a bifurcated world made up of two species: bears, who live aboveground in city streets, own shops, and are a generally self-indulgent lot from what we see, and mice, hiding in the subterranean tunnels where they remain safe from the bears’ omnivorous hunger. There’s a curious symbiotic relationship between the two populations: as the mice wear out their teeth, they steal teeth from the bears to replace them (they’re the bears’ Tooth Fairies, essentially), and a huge amount of the mouse society is devoted to this industry.
Ernest, then, is a wretchedly impoverished bear living in a shack outside of town, getting into regular scrapes with the police; Celestine is an orphan mouse being trained in the ways of denstistry. In the grand tradition of children’s story protagonists, we’re introduced to her as she’s receiving a frenzied lesson about how bears are wicked, violent enemies, to be feared and opposed at all costs, and she views this authority with a great deal of skepticism, believing as she does that bears and mice can and should be friends with each other. When an accident strands her aboveground, she’s discovered by the starving Ernest, but she manages to talk him out of eating her, and this is the start of the proverbial beautiful friendship.
Before the pleasingly brief 80 minutes of the movie are done, the plot has gone to some frivolously wacky places (it turns into a courtroom drama, despite the seeming impossibility of combining that genre with “talking animals learn life lessons”), but never in a way that threatens to break the pleasant spell of the setting and characters. The three directors (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner) and screenwriter Daniel Pennac guide the story much too delicately for it to feel forced or unlikely. That this all turns out to be a fable is obvious, but a fable with such likable, well-etched protagonists that it feels every bit as rich as a character study.
Even more than its charms as what amounts to a cinematic bedtime story, though, what sets the film apart as a very special movie is its gorgeous, warm art style. Somewhere in between watercolors and chalk drawings, the film is done up in a lot of soft earthtones and muted colors, with the edges of backgrounds bleeding off into white or brown. The only thing I can immediately think to compare it to is Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas with Studio Ghibli, particularly since this film, like that, opens with the young female protagonist drawing her way into the world.
In this film, as in Takahata’s, the understated images feel more like a pleasantly whimsical storybook illustration than anything we’re acclimated to think of as an animated feature, which makes Ernest & Celestine novel, but novelty isn’t the reason it works so well. It’s because of the gentility it gives the film, a calm visual beauty that perfectly accentuates its very simple story about two people becoming friends and sticking together. There’s no outsized ambition to the way the film has been assembled, no cleverness in the writing, no outrageousness to the characters. It is a basic, and very nice movie, which might sound like faint praise. But there’s a difference between being nice and bland, and being nice and exquisitely made and deeply felt, and Ernest & Celestine is so wonderfully crafted at every level, I’m tempted to call it my personal favorite animated film of the year.
Oscar? If the critics groups that have an animation category break for The Wind Rises, and there’s every reason to assume they will, Ernest & Celestine might have a visibility problem. But in a year when Frozen is the only American feature that has ignited much passion anywhere, I suspect that GKIDS will have a pretty easy time getting this into the #4 or #5 spot.
Release? Ernest & Celestine is being dubbed with American voices for its stateside release, the English version premiering at Sundance on January 19th with the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman and Jeffrey Wright.