Each year, it seems as if there is one animated feature film that leaves American moviegoers scratching their heads going "What's that?"
It is, almost inevitably, a foreign language film that finds itself amongst the more popular American nominees. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected any film other than Frozen to take hold the golden statuette and, of course, it did take home the golden statuette. While this may have been that rare year where the Disney entry actually did deserve to win, especially given the year seemed weaker than usual for animated features, this Cesar Award winning film and French-Belgian entry deserved far more attention than it actually received.
Based upon books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest & Celestine is a simple and beautiful film that may not resonate as deeply with those children who require weapons of mass distraction within their standard cinematic kiddie fare. That said, I have a strong feeling that many children will find this film to be quite delightful with its story of a friendship between a bear, Ernest (voiced in the French version by Lambert Wilson and by Forest Whitaker in the English language version), and a mouse, Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner in the original and Mackenzie Foy in the English Language version). Avoiding the legalistic perfectionism of much of today's computer generated animation, which can be both awe-inspiring and de-humanizing, Ernest & Celestine feels in many ways like a cousin to simple stories like The Velveteen Rabbit. The film's animation feels more relaxed, with squiggly lines instead of defined structure and a pastel palette that is beautiful to look at and far less energy draining than much of what passes for children's animation here in the U.S. While the foreground animation is computer-generated, Ernest & Celestine nicely weaves together both computer-generated animation and hand-drawn animation into a film that feels poetic and almost dreamlike in presentation.
It is well known that Gabrielle Vincent, who passed away in 2000, had always refused to have her books adapted into films. While it is difficult to say exactly how she would feel about this endeavor, one must give the film's trio of directors credit for maintaining a tremendous faithfulness to Vincent's works in both words and visuals.
The story itself may seem at least somewhat familiar as we have the mice who live underground and the bears who live above ground and, of course, there is to be no mixing whatsoever.
Of course, it goes without saying that Celestine is curious.
One day while she is exploring above ground, Celestine encounters Ernest. Ernest is a bear who will eat just about anything, but this momentary conflict is quickly resolved by Celestine and Ernest, who is a bit of an outsider even among his fellow bears, takes a bit of a liking to Celestine and the two become nearly inseparable. They are, almost inevitably, discovered yet this truly serves to only strengthen the friendship.
The essence of Ernest & Celestine is a beautifully presented and emotionally resonant message about friendship and how friendship doesn't have to look exactly like you. It can be as different as a mouse and a bear. While there are antics to be found in Ernest & Celestine, they are more relational and less reliant of special effects. The French, and this is true for much of European cinema for children, trust children to hear the words, understand the story, and be enchanted by the characters.
After all, wouldn't it be kind of ridiculous to make a film about how it's okay to be different and then have characters who looked just like everyone else?
I think so, too.
If I'm being completely honest, Ernest & Celestine is a slightly better film, but certainly not flawless, than the Oscar winning Frozen, a film that has now become the highest grossing animated feature of all-time. Rest assured, that won't happen with Ernest & Celestine but, well, that's absolutely okay because there's room for all of us to be friends.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic