Celestine (the one on the shoulder) and Ernest (GKids)

Celestine (the one on the shoulder) and Ernest (GKids)

Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner
Produced by Didier Brunner, Philippe Kauffmann, Vincent Tavier, Stéphan Roelants & Henri Magalon; English version by Eric Beckman, David Jesteadt and Michael Sinterniklaas
Written by Daniel Pennac, based on the books by Gabrielle Vincent; English adaptation by Stephanie Sheh
Released by GKids. In French or English.
France/Belgium/Luxembourg. 80 min. Rated PG
With the (French) voices of: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Dominique Collignon, Brigitte Virtudes, Patrice Melennec & Féodor Atkine
With the (English) voices of: Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman & Jeffrey Wright

The greatest charm of this Oscar-nominated animated feature is the artwork, which features hand-painted muted watercolor backgrounds. Evoking the style of its source material, Gabrielle Vincent’s series of children’s books, this is a unique and successful vision, turning an otherwise simple story into something more than a cardboard cartoon.

Celestine, a young mouse, crosses paths with Ernest, a grumpy, panhandling bear, in a world that proscribes cross-species fraternizing. Mice are brainwashed from a young age to fear predatory bears, who for their part are taught to dread being overrun by vermin. But, as might be expected, Celestine and Ernest strike up a friendship, in part based on their shared love of art: he is a musician, she paints. Their time spent in his untidy house is reminiscent of another Oscar-nominated feature, but luckily they seem to be on safer and relational ground than Cutie and the Boxer.

However, they are criminals. To satisfy their respective sweet tooths (and the story curiously fixates on teeth), they steal from a local ursine candy peddler and his dentist wife. Lest the audience members feel their consciences stirring over such larceny, the duplicitous bear duo is depicted as running a racket: he gives kids cavities, and she fixes them.

Yet the law catches up with our renegade heroes, and each ends up being tried by the other’s peers. Here, in a melodramatic sequence where didacticism finally catches up with the film’s playfulness, Ernest and Celestine make their case that the verdict ought to come down against prejudice, and not their admitted abuse of private property.

A little heavy-handedness is forgiven in this genre, and the film does have other elements to recommend it. There is plenty of kid-friendly slapstick, and a number of the images hold a quiet beauty. At one point, Celestine’s work comes to life through animated brush strokes, punctuated by Ernest’s music in a mode reminiscent of the best of Fantasia. But the fiery climax and a couple of nightmare sequences, while impressive, may scare the wee ones. Nor is it common for two animated protagonists to be brought close to public decapitation.

For a while, the parallels between the mouse world and the bear world lead one to believe a sophisticated lesson about relative morality is at hand—what’s good for one side is bad for the other, and so the world spins madly on. But this complex issue is ducked by the end, replaced by a heartfelt appeal to universal brotherhood. In a world where bears eat only candy, such a thing is still possible.