Ernest & Celestine

A touching tale of an unlikely friendship

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The enchanting French-Belgian animated feature Ernest & Celestine is so liltingly sweet and graceful that, a day or two after I saw it, it seemed almost as if I had dreamed it.

The real dreamers here are its young director, Benjamin Renner, co-directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, and the novelist screenwriter Daniel Pennac, adapting material from the beloved children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, which she both wrote and illustrated, about the enduring friendship between a little mouse and a big bear.

Vincent, who died in 2000, refused during her lifetime to allow her books to be made into films, but I can’t imagine she would have been anything but delighted at what these wizards have wrought. They have given her work renewed life in a new medium.

What’s doubly wonderful, at least for traditionalists, is that the animation is, for the most part, old school. The foregrounds, though computer-assisted, are so delicately done you wouldn’t know it, and the backgrounds are hand-drawn in a soft watercolor wash. The whole movie has a curlicued shimmer, as if at any time the imagery could morph into something entirely strange yet exactly right. Just as in a dream.

In this movie’s world, mice live strictly underground and bears above, and mixing it up is forbidden. Celestine, who lives in a mouse orphanage and loves to draw, is constantly warned about the “big bad bears.” She has other ideas, though. Illicitly aboveground one day, she has an encounter with Ernest, a big brawny bear who works as a busker for spare change and is something of an outcast even among his fellow bears. Ernest at first tries to gobble up Celestine—Ernest will eat just about anything—but Celestine, thinking fast, sets him straight.

They become, after many adventures and much give and take, inseparable. And when, indeed, they are ultimately separated—each charged with theft and placed on trial—they do each other proud. Stern-faced bears sit in judgment before Celestine, and Ernest faces off against the mice. Neither friend sells out the other. What’s more, when a fire breaks out, they save the day.

The mice economy runs on, of all things, teeth—bear teeth. The mouse dentists depend on those teeth to replace their patients’ own; the teeth are integral to funding the construction of entire mouse cities. Groomed for a life in dentistry, Celestine rebels. This is what makes her an ally of Ernest, who lives alone in a cabin far from the city. With his big belly mound and shambling gait, Ernest is hulking but harmless.

When he takes Celestine into his home—or rather, when she refuses to be cast out—he at first relegates her to the basement, where his snoring rocks the rafters and keeps her wide-eyed at bedtime. But there’s more to Ernest than meets the eye (something Celestine intuits right away). He’s something of a virtuoso at the piano, even though his lovely, light-fingered playing is periodically shattered by a pounding of the keys. He encourages Celestine’s drawing. When the windows are so snowed in she can’t see outside to sketch, he simply knocks a small hole through the wall for her.

Will adults love this movie as much as children? Of course. And why not? Great children’s movies speak equally to adults. (Think of The Red Balloon, Toy Story 3, The Black Stallion.) In some cities, Ernest and Celestine is being released in both a subtitled version, utilizing French actors, and a dubbed version, voiced by such actors as Forest Whitaker (as Ernest) and Lauren Bacall. If you are planning to see the film with kids in tow, and they are old enough to read subtitles, I would recommend the subtitled version. It’s closest in spirit to the original material. But however you see this film is fine. It’s possible, of course, to regard the entire enterprise as a vast parable about friendship and the need for understanding. The film is chockablock with valuable life lessons, but you’ll probably be having too much fun to notice. When Ernest proudly tells Celestine “You are a painter and I am a poet!,” I defy anyone in the audience not to crack a wide smile.

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