Based on the stories and water color illustrations by Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest & Celestine” tells a poignant and indispensible tale of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, whose kind are mortal enemies in an anthropomorphic animal world. The film’s case for friendship despite adversity is one of the greatest messages that a kid’s film can impart because it teaches children that the black and white rules set by authority aren’t always wise or informed.
Director Stéphane Aubier (“A Town Called Panic”) teams up with Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner to bring the beloved characters to life with fun animations that, occasionally, border on meta. There are some trippy moments, including mass mouse nightmares and self-illustrating drawings. But there is also a universal Winnie the Pooh vibe that helps keep the sometimes-dark subject matter from getting too heavy. Though the characters are established, Daniel Pennac’s story is original and a complimentary blend of entertainment and allegory.
Where animation is concerned, I am definitely old fashioned (notice I didn’t say “Old School” – That’s how old fashioned I am). There’s a certain warmth in hand-drawn illustrations that you just don’t find in CG films. “Ernest & Celestine” celebrates the artistry of old, with images based off of those in the original. Animation is art. If you’re going for realism, why not just shoot live action? Before they can read, the pictures in a book are absolutely crucial to a child’s enjoyment of a story. The film’s gorgeous 2D watercolor illustrations are comforting and moreover, they make sense to the target audience.
Another thing that makes sense to a child is that there could be coinciding animal societies that have an instinctual rivalry. The bears live above ground in a world not unlike that of humans. The mice have developed their society in the sewers where they are safe from their natural predators but are also poised to pilfer a most precious commodity: bear baby teeth. Because mice depend so much on their teeth, dentistry is an indispensable industry in the mouse world. The baby tooth of a bear is the ultimate upgrade and means life or death for a mouse that has lost or broken a tooth. Bears, afflicted with a decaying candy addiction, equally value replacement teeth, so they are none too pleased with the tiny looters who lurk underfoot.
Celestine lives in a nun-run mouse orphanage (the presence of nuns being shorthand for a rigid lifestyle). The nuns spin horrific yarns about the bears that live above them – They are not to be trusted. They will sooner eat you as look at you. They’re nothing more than mindless murder machines. But Celestine doesn’t buy it. She knows that somewhere up there is a bear that shares her artistic zeal.
One day, she portrays her mouse and bear friendship fantasy in a drawing. When the nuns find it, she is ridiculed and reprimanded for insubordination. But Celestine’s spirit is not dampened, and she decides to venture to the bear world to prove everyone wrong. That’s when she meets her bear of fancy.
Ernest is an impoverished musician who is also a sort of outcast in his own society. When word gets out of their association, it sends both worlds into turmoil and they are hunted down like criminals for the crime of cross-culture friendship.
Unlikely friendship stories teach about societal misconceptions and finding commonalities with those outside of our immediate circles. So naturally, a commie liberal mom such as myself would prefer a movie like this to the pop-culture-laden fartfests that rule at the box office. My opinion aside, the best review for this film comes from my three-year-old daughter who neither speaks French nor reads subtitles. She followed the story just fine and, every 5 minutes or so, turned to me said, “Mama, I really love this movie.” A great children’s film appeals to adults and children alike, but more importantly, it should strike a chord with everyone regardless of where they come from or what language they speak. “Ernest & Celestine” is a shining example.