Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)
France (2012) Dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner
Bonnie & Clyde, Fred & Ginger, Romeo & Juliet – there are many famous and infamous male/female duos in history (real and cinematic) but none are as distinctly cuddlier and far more innocent in their escapades than the ursine/rodent coupling creation of Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine.
Celestine is an orphan mouse living in the underground world of the rodents, where he orphanage caretaker, an elderly mouse referred to as the Grey One, indoctrinates the younger mice with tales of horror about the beastly bears that live in the over ground. A keen artist, Celestine refuses to believe these stories and continues to draw pictures of bears as friendly creatures, instead of studying dentistry as all rodents are supposed to do.
Above ground, a bear named Ernest is hungry and poor, his attempts to busk for food scuppered by the police, forcing him to raid dustbins for any edible scraps. In one bin he finds Celestine, hiding from an angry bear who caught her trying to collect his cub’s teeth. Ernest tries to eat Celestine but she convinces him to break into a sweet shop of the bear chasing her instead, turning both in Public Enemies no 1.
This is a very simple film with a very potent and clear message about cultural and racial integration, or in this case interspecies integration, told with warmth and an easygoing charm, free from didactic manipulation. The script by Daniel Pennac cleverly takes two maligned members of the animal kingdom and placing them in a two-tier caste system as the setting for this heart-warming tale.
While the underground world of the rodents has its own rudimentary technology, it is comparatively meagre and archaic compared to the modern existence the bear’s enjoy, simulating that of the humans – bears have houses, drive cars, attend schools and have jobs like running sweet shops or dental repair clinics, like the husband and wife bears Celestine ran afoul of.
Like the negative character studies of the bears the mice take as gospel, the bears also believe that rodents are undesirables and never the twain shall meet on a personal or social level. The only mice that get a pass from this are the Fairy Mice who perform the duties of the tooth fairy, a role designated to the juniors as part of the dentistry training, otherwise they are considered enemies, or better yet, food!
Ernest is very much a bear attuned to the beliefs of his kind, but finds himself lower on the totem due to his poverty, earning himself the reputation of being a troublemaker. Like Celestine, Ernest has no desires to follow the path chosen for him, instead wanting to become an entertainer which isn’t considered a worthwhile vocation, hence his solitude in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of the city.
The dichotomy of two like-minded social outcasts is not a new one but the fact they are a tiny mouse and gargantuan bear make it feel fresh and quite endearing, even for adults who can get behind their plight as outliers finding kindred spirits in one another despite being different species, while the kids can enjoy their playful antics together, born out their size mismatch and natural animalistic tendencies.
Overcoming their initial, indoctrinated prejudices about each other is part of the journey in this unlikely relationship, which actually doesn’t take up much time, this expedience a result of the terse 75-minute run time but the pair have already been through so much together this becomes something of a formality. With the chemistry already established the affection comes next, manifesting in equally quick steps through simple exercises of common sense that are true to their natural instincts.
It is only in the final act when both appears before each other’s courts for their heinous crimes of theft and worse, cohabiting, that the script bows down to the comprehension of the junior audience, spelling out its moral in neon lights. To avoid being reductive for the adults watching, it is the passion and poignancy of the voice actors’ performances (in the original French dub) that prevents this from becoming too saccharine.
What truly makes this film stand out is its traditional cell drawn animation and watercolour style artwork replicating Gabrielle Vincent’s illustrations in the same medium, in a world dominated by 3D CGI animation. Every frame permeates a comfortable, nostalgic sense of warmth, and the beauty of the imagery is not necessarily found in any precise detail but in its honesty and simplicity.
Recalling the artwork accompanying the works of Beatrix Potter and A.A Milne, the images in this film suggest it to be an old fashioned tale from the halcyon days of early 20th century children’s literature; in fact Vincent didn’t create Ernest & Celestine until the early 1980’s, but her creations are in good company, sharing the same timeless appeal of the aforementioned writers’ classic characters.
Co-directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar were responsible for the surreal stop-motion animation satire A Town Called Panic, which would make them seem like the last choices to direct something as linear and unchallenging as this film. Whether it was the input of third director Benjamin Renner, you’d never suspect two irreverent filmmakers were behind such a wonderfully amiable work.
I may be biased but if the Oscars would stop suckling at the teat of Disney and Pixar they might actually do international animators a huge favour by highlighting their work for everyone to discover instead of leaving them in the shadows of niche audiences. I say this because at the 2013 Oscars where this film was in contention, it was Frozen that predictably won the Best Animated Film award instead.
At the risk of hyperbolising, I can’t remember the last time, anime aside, an animated film bowled me over with its charm, heart and pure enriching joy as Ernest & Celestine did. Short, sweet, sublime, this will enchant kids and adults alike.