by Matt Levine
In a just world, Ernest & Celestine would have wrestled this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar from the likes of Frozen. Disney’s solid but predictable blockbuster has the sleek computer-generated animation and winking humor that have come to represent the highest aspirations of American animated comedies; Ernest & Celestine, on the other hand, is visually modest and narratively concise (its eighty minutes go by in the blink of an eye), but breathlessly euphoric in its imagination and sweetness. Charming, pleasant, amusing, and family-friendly are adjectives that will inevitably be applied to this French-Belgian-Luxembourgian co-production, but such epithets don’t do justice to the film’s seemingly effortless wit and powerful (if overplayed) themes about friendship and the value of creativity.
Celestine is an iconoclastic mouse in an underground community of rodents, housed in an orphanage for baby rats and mice that constantly warns its precocious residents about the “big, bad bears” who roam aboveground. In this subterranean community, dentistry is everyone’s cherished profession—after all, a rodent’s incisors are its greatest assets, the tools with which they mold the world around them. Celestine, however, has little interest in this inevitable vocation, preferring to sketch elaborate drawings as she observes the world around her—indeed, the very first images of the film take shape as Celestine doodles them, suggesting her as the author and instigator of these adventures in more ways than one.
Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner
Producers: Eric Beckman, Didier Brunner, David Jesteadt, Henri Magalon, Stéphane Roelants, Michael Sinterniklaas, Vincent Tavier
Writers: Daniel Pennac, Gabrielle Vincent (book)
Music: Vincent Courtois
English-Language Cast: Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright
French-Language Cast: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Patrice Melennec, Brigitte Vertudes, Léonard Louf, Dominique Collignon, Yann Le Madic, Féodor Atkine, Patrice Dozier
Premiere: May 23, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 28, 2014
US Distributor: Gkids
The “real world” above the sewers is populated by bears who blatantly resemble their human counterparts: living in posh abodes and terrified of the sniveling rodents who occasionally encroach upon their world, these bears care mostly about security, economic and otherwise. An ursine middle-class couple seems indicative of the community at large: the father owns a candy shop and the mother owns a dentist’s office across the street, the two businesses obviously mutually beneficial. When their toddler son loses a tooth, he demands more than a quarter from the “mouse tooth fairy”—an avarice to which his father responds with gloating pride.
Ernest, however, is different: a downtrodden bear who earns handouts by performing as a one-man band, he awakes from hibernation with an insatiable hunger (preferably for the sweets stashed in the neighborhood candy shop, though a vulnerable rodent works just as well). Ernest first meets Celestine as he plucks her from a garbage bin, eyeing her as a potential meal—but, seeing how this is a kid-friendly testament to the power of friendship and idiosyncracy, they quickly become close friends as she sneaks him into the candy shop through the basement window. Before long, Ernest and Celestine are inseparable, united not only by their alienation from their respective communities, but also by their curiosity with the world around them and their passion for creative expression.
Themes of friendship trumping alienation and embracing one’s fertile imagination are commonplace in children’s movies, but rarely are these optimistic ideals conveyed as sweetly and infectiously as they are here. With Ernest’s zeal for music (he reveals himself to be a spirited pianist as well as a street-performing huckster) and Celestine’s love for painting, the two bond over a creative fertility, an eagerness to perceive the world and transform it into something personal and transcendent. At one point, as Celestine paints a wintry landscape, Ernest’s musical accompaniment transforms the scene into a blissful celebration of how art can elevate our surroundings and unite one another, both as artists and audiences. The value of creative expression is reaffirmed at the end of the film, as Ernest and Celestine eagerly vow to collaborate on future stories—their fervent imagination both irrepressible and intimately intertwined.
Ernest and Celestine’s unbreakable friendship and their wide-eyed wonder at the world are starkly contrasted with their respective societies: whether it’s the bears’ adoration of money or the rodents’ greed for powerful bears’ teeth, wealth is the all-consuming priority both above and below-ground. Given that bears perceive mice as unsanitary pests and the rodents see bears as murderous tyrants, Ernest and Celestine’s friendship is not viewed kindly by either community—leading to a genuinely frightening climax in which both characters are terrorized by draconic forces of law and order, a heartless xenophobia which cares only about upholding the law (even if it destroys lives). Sound familiar? It isn’t rare for animated movies to undermine the intolerance and bigotry of which humans are capable (Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie are notable recent examples), and Ernest &Celestine doesn’t exactly convey this commentary with any subtlety. But it does celebrate the potential for friendship and creativity to unite us in the face of vile prejudice, with obvious fondness for its anthropomorphized mavericks. The movie’s own gleeful affection for Ernest and Celestine is unavoidably contagious; how can we not feel elation at their sincere, enraptured rapport?
In an age when Pixar reigns supreme and almost every major studio has an animation outlet, Ernest & Celestine’s spare, vivid hand-drawn compositions are unique in their simplicity. The film is based on a series of books written and illustrated by Gabrielle Vincent, and by emulating her minimalist style—with its bright, pastel colors, an amorphous interplay between foreground and background, and borders which often fade as they approach the corners of the frame--Ernest & Celestine is able to mimic the relatable universality and bubbling optimism of a children’s fable. Too many filmmakers (in animation or otherwise) mistake a sleek, hyperactive style for aesthetic prowess, but a vibrant simplicity often seems more humane and profound than the jam-packed, multimillion dollar compositions indulged by most Hollywood films. Between the plastic sheen of Frozen and the hand-drawn quirks of Ernest & Celestine, I’d gladly take the ravishing surprises achieved by the latter approach (or at least strike a more equitable balance between the two).
The delightful animation excels partially because it serves a pitch-perfect screenplay (penned by Daniel Pennac) and a sublime sense of comedic timing: the film avoids succumbing to the cliches of kid-friendly comedies by sustaining its sharp, shimmering tone throughout. The amiably silly punchlines—like the fact that the army of mice uses mousetraps for their weightlifting regimen, or a scene in which Ernest repeatedly flings Celestine from his ramshackle house only to have her reappear through nooks and crannies a moment later—are beautifully executed, achieving an impressive jokes-per-minute ratio. The vocal performers also lend great tenderness and dexterity to these characters, allowing their burgeoning friendship and eventual endangerment to affect the audience with unexpected force. (I should mention that I was able to preview the French-language version with English subtitles, though the star-studded actors lending their voices to the English-language version surely provide a worthy replacement for younger audiences who might not be able to keep up with the subtitles.) In both its running time and visual aesthetic, Ernest & Celestine initially seems simple and concise—a pleasant if fleeting diversion. Somehow, though, the film becomes majestically funny, harrowing, and poignant through its apparent modesty, reminding us that compassionate characters and unbridled creativity are more surefire avenues to greatness than the glimmering CGI enabled by exorbitant budgets.