Movie Review: Ernest and Celestine
Sometimes it is in popularity, that some things we never considered, can come to our attention.
I still remember watching the 1994 Academy Awards Ceremony, and seeing clips for several of the animated shorts that were nominated. I was intrigued by the visuals for the winning short called The Wrong Trousers, and when Wallace and Gromit became available in the United States on VHS a few years later, it was those memories that pushed me to get those shorts on video. Pretty soon, the duo’s adventures were embraced by my family.
Starting in 2001, with the new Best Animated Feature category, we have seen a number of lesser-known (aka foreign) works make their way onto the nominations ballot. These include such films as The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, and The Secret of Kells.
What I found most amazing, is that the majority of the foreign animated features that have been nominated, have largely been French co-productions. Apparently, there must be something in the water over there, that allows them to create such works that can get through to the attentions of us over here.
With the recent awards season, another French co-production found its way into the Animated Features category, with the nomination of Ernest and Celestine, produced by Didier Brunner (producer of The Triplets of Belleville, Secret of Kells), and directed by Benjamin Renner (making his feature directorial debut).
The film’s world is comprised of two species: bears, and mice. While bears inhabit a human-like above-ground city, the mice live below. Each has set certain parameters in place, that prevent any cross-species intermingling. The bears are told that if you let one mouse in, more will follow. For the mice, they are told that the bears above are evil creatures, that will surely gobble you up.
One who does not take much stock in the rantings of her elders, is a little orphan mouse named Celestine. Though being groomed to work within dentistry in the rodent-world, she seems more occupied with wanting to fill her sketchbook. Of course, it is the concept of being friends with these “big bad bears” that turns many away from her.
One day, she comes across a down-on-his-luck bear named Ernest. Starving, Ernest almost gobbles up the little mouse, but being quick-witted, Celestine manages to help him find a source of food in the basement of a nearby sweet shop…which soon ends up being the first of many troubles the two get into.
The film is based on a series of books created by Gabrielle Vincent. After seeing the film, I searched around for more on her work, but sadly, it seems her books have not been translated into English.
As well, trying to find information on Gabrielle was a quest in itself. I was lucky enough to find a link on Tumblr, that tells of her work, and the making of the film (courtesy of one of the animators who worked on the film!). Over 19 years, Gabrielle made over 30 books of the interactions of Ernest and Celestine, before she passed away in 2000. Word was that during her lifetime, Gabrielle turned down offers to adapt her works into mediums like television and film.
It’s a shame that not many know about these books, as I have been amazed at the detail in some of the story images I’ve found online.
While the film’s characterization is not exact to Vincent’s art style, it portrays it in such an honorable way, that one need not get so worked up. I saw it as necessary, if one is to make the characters as expressive within the animation medium as possible. Probably of all of the nominees for Best Animated Feature this year, I think this one is the most beautiful and inspiring.
Ever since being intrigued by the emotional animation of The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast, I’ve always gone into every animated feature, expecting it to hit me in an emotional way, and this film delivered in many wonderful ways.
For 3/4 of the film, I was sitting upright in my theater seat, guffawing with the other 15 people in the theater, gasping at certain scenarios, and taking in the minute expressions of the different characters.
Many of the backgrounds are not completely painted, and look like they’ve been plucked from a children’s book themselves, with the wispy white of the paper seen on the edges of some scenes. The artwork on display kept captivating me throughout, and sometimes I found myself in a three-way tug-of-war with the film: trying to read the subtitles, watch the characters, and take in the artwork on display. This is a film that I can see inspiring others out there to get creative.
I always love how films like this can mine comedy just out of situations or expressions. They don’t need to fall back on “standards” like we’ve seen in many US releases out there. There are so many little things the characters do in this film, that I just couldn’t help but crack up over and over again. As well, the hand-drawn animation gives the artists free reign to exaggerate. This comes into play when a gaggle of mouse police figures chase Ernest and Celestine. Instead of showing dozens of individual mice, the animators group them together in a massive “Wave” form, that bears down on our two leads, making the situation humorous, but a bit deadly.
The film’s music is composed by Vincent Courtois, and has a beautiful, languid simplicity to it that I greatly welcomed. Courtois even gets ingeniously creative, notably in a song sung by Ernest. However, there did come a moment where music and art fused together in a most glorious way. When Celestine claims she wishes to paint winter, Ernest plays a tune on a violin, musically creating a canvas of what winter ‘sounds’ like. The moment lasts 2-3 minutes with just images and music, and is something that has to be experienced on screen. Trust me on this one.
If there’s one point where the film falters, it feels like it starts to get a little too languid 3/4 of the way through. The film clocks in at one hour and twenty minutes, and even then, it feels like maybe the film would have possibly been better serviced as a series of smaller short-subjects, chronicling the adventures of Ernest and Celestine. Then again, maybe that could be an offshoot of the film in the future: further adventures, based on the other books Vincent wrote.
Ernest and Celestine is a film that proves that beauty can be found in even the simplest of things: whether it be a friendship between a bear and a mouse, or in line strokes and watercolor. This was a film where I completely could get behind those who had nominated it. Though it didn’t win at the Academy Awards, it did receive a special mention during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and won for Best Animated Film at France’s Cesar Awards.
At the time of this writing, it is being shown in limited release in select theaters across the US. The majority of the prints feature an English-dubbed cast that includes Forest Whitaker as Ernest, and Mackenzie Foy as Celestine (a few theaters are running prints with the original French dialogue, and English subtitles). Still, one can hope that maybe over the next year, those who couldn’t see it in theaters, will discover the film when it comes out for the home video market. It’s one of the first films this year that I strongly recommend to those with an eye for art, or who may be in the mood for good old-fashioned storytelling that hits you in all the right spots.
Ernest and Celestine is currently playing in limited release in various cities. You can find out more about the film and its release schedule, at The GKIDS Website.