'Ernest & Celestine' is a warm celebration of an unlikely friendship
Ernest & Celestine GKIDS
Director: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner
Screenplay: Daniel Pennac, based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent
Starring: The voices of Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Dominique Maurin, Féodor Atkine, Brigitte Virtudes and Patrice Melennec
Rated PG / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Bears and mice do not get along, and should stay as far away from each other as possible. Everyone knows this. Everyone in Ernest & Celestine is comfortable with those expectations, and so their daily lives proceed peacefully - the bears occupying the bustling town above ground, the mice residing in the sewers below.
This mutually agreed-upon separation of species is reinforced by both sides through tall tales. For the young mice in the underground orphanage, their caretaker - a large and overbearing woman in a black cloak - feeds them stories about a Big Bad Bear who feasts on little mice like them. He'll fry them up, sauté them, even gobble them up raw if he feels like it. That's the story, anyway.
Conversely, the bears' view of mice is ... a little complex. On one hand, mice are the cheerful tooth fairies in the bedtime fables parents tell to their children. On the other hand, whenever bears find themselves face to face with a poor little mouse, they're terrified beyond belief.
The clever thing about the script is the way those contrasting tales substantiate their underlying truths, while, by necessity, undercutting their intended message. When Ernest, a loner and part-time street musician with little patience for company and a big appetite for junk food, happens upon a Celestine - a young orphan mouse - in a trash can early one morning, his first impulse is, indeed, to eat her. He's a starving artist, after all - a man's gotta eat.
Celestine, meanwhile, was only above ground in the first place because she was out all night looking for teeth to steal. So the stories were all, essentially, true.
In this mouse underground, dentistry is the highest ambition of society, and bear teeth - scavenged by the orphaned youth each night - are the most prized possession. Mice are constantly losing their teeth, you see, so there's always a demand for replacements.
The film is built on those kinds of cute, if obvious, ironies, but ultimately, as the story progresses, they speak to something deeper. Ernest and Celestine form what is, at least initially, a partnership based on necessity and survival. Celestine avoids being eaten by instead pointing Ernest toward the basement of the local candy shop, which is practically overflowing with sugary goods. And Ernest helps Celestine - who's much more interested in being an artist than in stealing teeth - fulfill her tooth quota, breaking into to the local dentist's office and swiping a big bag of them, and carrying it down into the sewers below for delivery.
But their partnership gradually blossoms into a friendship, which is deemed unacceptable to both the bear and mouse societies. The two quickly run afoul of the law and become public enemies Nos. 1 and 2 among their own friends and neighbors. Their only refuge - and, with winter coming, a safe haven for a few months - is at Ernest's isolated home out in the middle of the woods at the top of a hill. And while Ernest initially sees his little mouse tagalong as little more than a nuisance, he eventually finds her to be an invaluable friend. The two outcasts find a kinship in their creative pursuits - his music, her drawing - and in one another find protection, understanding and care.
Rather than being simply another tale of mismatched friendship, Ernest & Celestine reveals itself as a stern condemnation of the prejudices of adults. The authority figures in the film - the parents, the shop owners, the police, even judges and juries - have created and continually reinforced an understanding of the world in which the Other is to be feared and avoided. There's a very funny moment in which Ernest, taken aback by the accusation that he scares mouse children, asks them point blank, "Children? Do I scare you?" They all immediately, and confidently, shake their heads no. Then their caretaker sternly claps her hands in defiance, and the children, on cue, start shrieking in coerced fear.
Ultimately, the message is broad and simple even by the standards of a moral parable, and the film's events - particularly in the final 20 minutes - are completely obvious and convenient in the way they reinforce the point. But the film's Pollyanna simplicity feels like it's driven by an honest sense of humanity - equal parts empathy and sorrow - and deliberately packaged in an accessible story about two likable characters.
Directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner (A Town Called Panic) give the film a storybook-like sensibility, featuring carefully focused action within each composition and lighter details around the edges of the frame. There's a loose, watercolor-like aesthetic to the visuals, and they use it to splendid effect, cleverly playing with perspective at times - i.e. the way Ernest camouflages his bright red van with a few slabs of paint that blends it to absurd perfection with the surrounding woods, or the way the orphanage caretaker's shadow looms enormous and scary against the wall as she tells the story of the Big Bad Bear.
The filmmakers' approach works well, as they give their characters and locations a fluid kind of expressiveness that nicely matches the film's frequent eccentricity and chaos. The hand-drawn animation is a joy to take in, while also belying the more serious things Aubier, Patar, Renner and screenwriter Daniel Pennac have to say. As a whole, Ernest & Celestine is an eminently likable and warm character piece with mature things on its mind and a simplistic, if still effective, way to get them across.