American animated movies tend to fall into two categories: either they’re super goofy and silly and aimed mainly for the under 8s out there (which is a very lucrative field), or they’re the high-concept awards-bait that Pixar, Disney, and some of Dreamworks have been doing for awhile. Most of the time these are CG and hyper-glossy, and that’s completely fine. Overseas, however, animated filmmakers seem to be finding exactly the tone to speak to both children and adults without throwing in reference-based jokes or overly rude humor. In Japan, obviously, there’s Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and they’re doing just fine, and in France and Belgium there are the films produced by Didier Brunner, like The Triplets of Belleville and The Secret of Kells. The latest of these is the Oscar-nominated Ernest and Celestine, a film that could not be more adorable if it tried. And thankfully, it doesn’t really try.
Based on the French children’s book by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest et Célestine takes us into a very distinct world of anthropomorphic animals; there are the bears who live on the surface and there are the mice who live in the sewers. Both societies have their hierarchy and cities and occupations and everything one would expect. However, the two must never intersect. Mice children are taught at a very early age to fear the massive and bloodthirsty bears, and bears know that mice will steal their food and so hate and fear them as well. Right away you get the idea, “Oh, it’s going to be about two groups of people learning to be friends.” While that may be the ultimate message, like all good films, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Celestine is a mouse orphan who doesn’t like her rather feeble lot in life, wanting to be an artist when she is destined for dentistry, nor does she really think bears are as bad as the mean old head of the orphanage tells her constantly. Ernest is a good-for-nothing street performer bear who can never get enough food to eat. He lives in a dilapidated house in the woods and is generally gruff and ill-tempered. On a chance excursion to the bear world to invade the local sweet shop, Celestine encounters Ernest who promptly tries to eat her, though she instead tries to introduce herself and slaps him on the nose when get goes in for a bite. She convinces Ernest not to eat her in exchange for access to the sweet shop’s store room, where the large bear can eat to his heart’s content, despite the thievery and all.
It is from here that the movie becomes really touching. Ernest and Celestine form an unlikely bond after he manages to escape to his home and Celestine, fed up with underground life, tags along and tries to live with Ernest. He’s resistant at first, because he’s a grumpy old bear, but eventually he lightens up and begins dressing properly again and the two have a true friendship brewing. This, unfortunately, is not meant to last and the bear and mouse authorities put aside their differences to try and track down the two most wanted criminals in either city.
As I said, the movie is all kinds of adorable. Bears and mice! Can you get any cuter than that? Part of what I love about animated movies, especially the non-American ones, is their ability to tell simple stories in a complex way and still be universally accessible. The reality of the film is never questioned even if the mice are much larger than they actually would be and the evolution of the two peoples doesn’t seem to make much sense. Who cares?! Mice being reared to collect the baby teeth of bears is such an out-there and wild notion and you can totally understand why an artistic soul like Celestine would want nothing to do with it.
The film was directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner and, though I’ve never heard of or seen the source material, they do an amazing job of making the movie look and feel like a storybook. The animation is done in a very flowy watercolor style, which is (literally) illustrated in the opening title sequence. Watercolors just evoke childhood to me, for some reason, and the character designs look like they belong in the annals of people like Richard Scarry and Stan and Jan Berenstain. It’s only 80 minutes long, but you are fully absorbed in it.
The Blu-ray contains both the original French language audio (which is how I initially saw it at LA Film Fest last year) and a newly-recorded English language track featuring performances by Forest Whitaker as Ernest, Mackenzie Foy as Celestine, and supporting performances from Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Lauren Bacall, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, and Jeffrey Wright. This track captures the characters nicely, though I still think I prefer the French, if for no other reason than I saw it that way first.
As for extras on the disc, there’s a really nice hour-long making-of tracking the history of the project all the way up until its initial European release in 2012. There’s also an interview with co-director Benjamin Renner, and the option to watch the film entirely as storyboards, which is very cool.
Ernest & Celestine is a delightful, charming, and fun animated film that I’m almost positive everyone who watches will love. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and heartwarming. It’s a must-watch, you guys.