One of the untrammeled joys of springtime is the arrival of Oscar-nominated foreign films that are just now making their way to U.S. theaters outside of New York and L.A. It seems a little crazy that “Ernest & Celestine” was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in late summer of 2012, but is just now arriving in the heartland, despite picking up an Academy Award nod for best animated feature last year.
It’s well worth the wait. This hand-drawn French-Belgian production is a sheer delight, a mix of whimsy and somber subtext that should please both children and adults mightily. My 3-year-old watched it rapturously, and then asked to see it again – despite not being able to read the English subtitles.
(There is also an English-dubbed version making the rounds that includes the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. Personally, I always prefer to watch a film in its native language, but I can see where kids not yet able to read quickly might find the subtitle experience frustrating.)
Based on a series of children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest & Celestine” takes us into a split world of bears and mice. Above ground, the bears go about their daily business in a Paris-like setting, complete with shops, cars and police. The parallel mouse land underneath them is much the same in a miniaturized version.
Each group fears and hates the other. The bears regard mice as vile vermin, while mice view bears as predators who eat their kind. Celestine (voice of Pauline Brunner) is a kind-hearted mouse who grew up in an orphanage, where the tyrannical old caretaker with the perfect name of La Grise (Anne-Marie Loop) weaves vivid tales of mouse tots being devoured by the Big Bad Bear. Despite this, Celestine is not afraid of bears and draws portraits of herself befriending a bear.
Meanwhile, Ernest (Lambert Wilson) lives in a dilapidated cottage in the countryside, coming to town to make some money as an itinerant street musician and feed his growling hunger. Ernest and Celestine run into each other, get into some scrapes with the law, and become fugitives while growing closer.
I loved that the primary type of commerce happening in both the bear and mouse worlds involves teeth. The mice steal baby bear teeth, which they file down to replace their own sharp incisors, so they can chew through virtually anything.
The bears have their own stores where they can pick out new teeth for themselves. One enterprising married couple runs a candy shop on one side of the street and a tooth outlet in the other, so the latter can service the bears who have rotted their teeth away at the former.
I adored the spare, expressive animation style of the film, which approximates the illustrations of a children’s book. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner serve as a trio of co-directors, with Daniel Pennac supplying the screenplay adaptation.
The movie’s tone is sweet and simple, but there are seismic tremors of deeper portents, if one cares to listen. This is best captured in a pair of simultaneous court hearings, in which Celestine and Ernest each have to justify their affection for one another before a jury of their opposite kind. It’s a subtle comment on society being intolerant of those on their margins.
This stuff will surely go over the head of wee ones, as it’s supposed to. They’ll just have to settle for a magical little tale about a pair of unlikely furry friends.