Bear, mouse dare to be friends in charming ‘Ernest and Celestine’
It’s not exactly Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even a romance, although it is a love story about two individuals separated by prejudice who find the courage to form an unshakable bond despite the rules and traditions that keep them apart.
And what are these forces that divide them? Red State vs. Blue State? Lannister vs. Stark? In the charming picture-book world of Ernest and Celestine, it’s the parallel worlds of bears vs. mice, bridged by one heroic duo who dare to defy the rules and become friends.
Inspired by the popular series of children’s books by Belgian painter and author Gabrielle Vincent, the film is a French-Belgian co-production directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner. Aubier and Patar were responsible for the hilarious stop-motion clay animation oddity A Town Called Panic a few years back. But in this, their second venture into feature-length animation, they take their cue from the sketchy, winsome, utterly beguiling ink-and-watercolor paintings of Ms. Vincent, borrowing her lovely pastel palette and humorous observations of character.
Scripted by Daniel Pennac, the story begins in a gloomy mouse orphanage. Every night, the little inmates are force-fed horror stories about the mice-eating “Big Bad Bear” by the ancient, snaggle-toothed headmistress called the Grey One (voice of Lauren Bacall in the English-dubbed version; the Nickelodeon will be showing the film in both dubbed and subtitled French-language versions). The bears inhabit the world above, while the mice occupy the world underground, and if there’s one thing every child learns in infancy, it’s that “A bear and a mouse cannot be friends.”
Nevertheless, mouse orphan Celestine (voice of Mackenzie Foy), a budding artist, persists in filling her sketchbooks with drawings of bears and mice together. Her artistry also interferes with her vocational training, for, in a Divergent-worthy society of pre-selection, Celestine is supposed to become a dentist. (Healthy teeth are important for a rodent population that survives by “gnawing its way through the greatest cities in the world,” and re-routing mighty rivers.) Trainees begin by sneaking up into the bear world at night and stealing the discarded baby teeth that bear children put under their pillows—from which practice, bear society has developed its folklore about the “mouse tooth fairy.”
In one such nighttime foray aboveground, little Celestine is trapped in a garbage can overnight. In the morning she’s found there by Ernest (voice of Forest Whitaker), a big, hungry bear. He’s about to eat her, but she talks him out of it, convincing him she’s too small a morsel and promising to find him a better meal. Thus begins a series of mutual favors that becomes an alliance that blossoms into deep friendship.
They have a lot in common. Ernest loves music, but his parents wanted him to become a judge. Now he makes a meagre living in town busking on corners with a bass drum strapped to his back and an accordion under one foot—when the bear cops aren’t confiscating his instruments or arresting him as a vagrant. When he brings Celestine home to his ramshackle cabin in the woods, he sets up a little art space for her where she can draw and paint all day. But soon, the entire bear and mouse police forces are after them on various trumped-up charges—but mostly for the “crime” of being friends.
While the story works as a sweet little parable about tolerance, the movie is also unadulterated fun from its first to last moments. The depiction of the separate-but-equal bear and mouse worlds is very funny; each has its shops, professions, vehicles and institutions, but the bears live aboveground while the mice cities spread out in the nether regions, under bridges and through tunnels and sewers. (Bear cops ride two to a car, but the mice police swarm out of their patrol car by the dozens, engulfing their prey.)
The artwork is splendid too, from surreal dream sequences to lyrical moments when we follow the meandering line of Celestine’s paint brush as it responds to Ernest’s soulful violin playing. And the story enchants as it reaches its conclusion that fear alone divides these two worlds, but love can bring them together.
ERNEST & CELESTINE
★★★1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, and Lauren Bacall. Written by Daniel Pennac. From the books by Gabrielle Vincent. Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner. A Gkids release. (PG) 80 minutes.