A Delightful French Game of Bear and Mouse for All Ages
DIRECTED BY STEPHANE AUDIER, VINCENT PATAR/FRENCH/2014 (U.S. Theatrical release)
The charming animated feature Ernest & Celestine was probably too modest, too quaint, and too French to beat out Disney’s Frozen at the recent Academy Awards. Not that Frozen was undeserving, but I do hope that Ernest & Celestine gave it at least a run for its (considerable) money.
One look at Ernest & Celestine and it will come as no surprise that it’s based upon a children’s storybook (this one by Gabrielle Vincent), as each frame is a kind of whimsical watercolored page come to life. Perhaps not since UPA’s short animated adaptation of Madeline in 1952 has a film harbored such a precise storybook aesthetic. Indeed, the foundational element of this world is not dirt, soil, limestone, nor some ethereally meticulous computer generated 3D world of 1s and 0s. It’s good old paper white – the home of the children’s characters of several bygone eras. Ernest & Celestine channels that nostalgia without ever feeling stale, stuffy or old. Contrarily, every bit of its breezy eighty minutes is an innocently charged breath of fresh air. The word “delight” has been rightfully bandied in its favor.
Before A Town Called Panic was a poster on one of the character’s walls in this film, it was the filmmakers’ previous big screen effort (the filmmakers being Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, now joined by feature newcomer Benjamin Renner), an unconventionally odd duck animated daydream involving toys in almost random adventures. As fun as Panic was, Ernest & Celestine surpasses it, by virtue of its two wonderful title characters, Ernest the poor, gruff yet personable bear (in a trench coat and hat, and voiced by Lambert Wilson) and Celestine the young girl mouse who was raised to hate and fear bears (voice of Pauline Brunner), but isn’t interested in doing so. They forge what we understand to be the most unlikeliest of deep but uneasy friendships, haphazardly adventuring their way through the reactionary alienation of both their representative cultures. To paraphrase Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, after the first day, Ernest wanted to hang out with Celestine for the rest of his life. After the first week, he’d completely given up the notion of eating her.
Ernest & Celestine is in French with English subtitles, the only barrier the film challenges younger viewers with in this otherwise altogether kid friendly romp. (According to the internet, there is an English voiced version featuring Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, William H. Macy, Paul Giamatti, and Lauren Bacall, but that’s not what is being reviewed here.) That is, if parents and guardians don’t mind adventures of characters who break into candy stores, hijack moving vehicles, start fires, and cultivate copious chaos. But, they do mean well! It’s all in service of escaping the angry throngs of bears and/or mice that are out to get them – throngs that lunge onward as a singular blob of heads and arms, the likes of which not seen since World War Z. It’s one of many examples of clever, inventive uses of the seemingly simple yet highly expressive 2D animation that the world seems to be forgetting. (Amid the vibrancy of it all, dried watercolor splotches and loose sketch marks are proudly visible.)
Pitting this film against Frozen during the 2013/14 American film awards season seems ludicrous in retrospect, a little mouse/big mouse arms race of animated whimsy. Ernest & Celestine deserves more than to be introduced as “one of the movies that lost to Frozen”, but if the Oscar nom is what it takes for it to get to theatrical screens, I’m willing to let it go. (Sorry.) While the cold never bothered The Academy voters anyway, Ernest & Celestine, with its sparking friendship and craziness, still has a lot of fanciful fire in it. And that shouldn’t bother anyone, either.