Ernest & Celestine is as visually inviting as it is warmly honest about issues that are dear to little kids who are at that fragile age when friendship means everything and the loss of a friend is a catastrophe so devastating they think they are the only ones who have experienced it. It is animated with heart and compassion. No frills. It looks gentle, like its characters. It flows with the ease and grace of a ballerina on ice. It is so lovely that despite catering thematically to children, we as adults remain hooked on its charm throughout. This is one of the best and most easily accessible animated movies I have seen.
And it looks delightful. The characters are drawn delicately by hand then coloured in with soft watercolours. Their movements, animated later in computers, are swift. Even Ernest, the big bumbling bear, has a softness in his step. Yes, when he sneezes his whole house shakes, but we can imagine him tiptoeing through a jungle of pins and coming out without a puncture.
A lot of animated movies today aim to wow us with their dazzling visuals, which spread themselves across the screen, filling up every corner and gap. Some of them cram so much detail into a shot that our eyes struggle to speed from one end of the frame to the other in time to catch everything. It’s as if all the production companies are putting their computer skills on display and we have to pick the best. Ernest & Celestine is like a meadow in spring by comparison. We look upon it and feel relaxed, refreshed. Some of its shots don’t even fill the screen; the watercolour bleeds out from the centre and vanishes beneath the canvas before reaching an edge. It uses negative space so effectively that it directs our eyes for us. Some movies make you want to turn away and look at something beautiful. Ernest & Celestine is that something beautiful.
Its story is also beautiful, in an equally understated way. There are bears and mice. Only bears and mice. No humans. The bears live above ground in sort of posh neighbourhoods. They drive vans, and grocery shop. Concrete houses line cobblestone and gravel streets. The school bell rings and little cubs pour out to the candy store down the road. In another movie they’d be humans. They even believe in the tooth fairy, which, in this movie, is less of a fairy and more of a mouse.
The mice live underground, in vast cavernous labyrinths shaped and maintained by their incisors. Teeth are their trade. A mouse without its two front teeth is as useful as The Mona Lisa to Ray Charles. Their livelihood depends on it. As with any society, there are the poor and homeless, and some stray mice have lost their teeth. This is where Celestine, the movie’s young plucky heroine, comes in.
Celestine (Pauline Brunner) lives in an orphanage and works as an intern at the local dentistry, which sits atop a knoll surrounded by a moat. You get an idea of teeth’s importance in this society; the dentistry is more prominent than the police station or court house, and has the stature of a fortress. Celestine’s job is to sneak up to ground level at night and exchange young bear cub teeth for gold coins. I say sneak because bears and mice don’t get along. There’s a lovely scene where police officers from both sides meet at the mouth of a manhole and regard each other first with fear then with wary interest, as if they’ve never seen the likes of each other before.
On one of her prowls, Celestine meets Ernest (Lambert Wilson), the greedy bear who lives alone in an abandoned cottage, looks at visiting birds and sees them already plucked and cooked. The two become friends, which is a travesty to their societies because mice and bears don’t get along! Now they are fugitives, which is a problem mitigated by the irrepressible fondness they develop for each other. Celestine is adorable in that we know she is a mouse and yet we want desperately to cradle her. Ernest is abundantly sympathetic, chiefly because he is so kind. Had this movie set its eyes on older audiences, the mouse and the bear would have defied natural law and become lovers. But here, in a world of innocence, friendship is the limit, and rightly so.
I sat through much of Ernest & Celestine with a smile on my face. Seldom does a family movie offer any kind of incentive for adults. Family movies. Movies that appeal to mum and dad just as much as they do to son and daughter. Despite being a category a lot of films find themselves in, only a handful actually provide nourishment for viewers older than 10. Ernest & Celestine would make a 90 year old blush with happiness. It never steps wrong. I think it could, though, if you catch the English version, with a number of famous Hollywood stars (Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall) providing the voices. Stick to the original French version and read the subtitles. Don’t be lazy. This isn’t a movie that deserves your laziness.
Best Moment | All of it. I especially liked how the mouse police force comes together and flows and gushes through tunnels and around bends, like a torrential river.
Worst Moment | Nope.