“What does the Big Bad Bear like the most?” yells the Grey One to the orphaned mice. “A little mouse. All raw! That’s how he prefers them! All alive!”
A couple of years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon an intriguing French stop-motion animated film called A Town Called Panic when it aired on the Sundance Channel. It was directed by Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier, and it centered on the misadventures of a cowboy, a Native American Indian, and a talking horse. It was a film that I later discovered I had missed out on when it played at Film Forum and the IFC Center in 2009 and 2010 in New York City. I was intent on making sure I’d see Patar and Aubier’s follow-up film, and surely enough, they teamed with Benjamin Renner to make Ernest and Celestine. The film opened in France in 2012, and took nearly two years to hit U.S. cinemas (it did pick up a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature earlier this year). I was fortunate enough to see the film at the IFC Center last month, and I was relieved to find that it was as good as I had hoped (if not better).
Based on the children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, 2012’s Ernest and Celestine follows an orphaned mouse named Celestine who likes to draw and challenges the notion that all bears are bad. She lives in an underground mouse city, and is forced to intern for dentists. One night while she’s above ground looking to fill her tooth quota, she becomes trapped in a garbage can and is found the next morning by Ernest, a hungry bear with musical talent. Celestine helps him break into the storage room of a candy shop, where he proceeds to have a feast. When Celestine turns in one tooth to the dentists, the head dentist tells her not to come back until she’s collected 50 teeth. Celestine returns to the above world to find Ernest being arrested by the cops. She sneaks into the police van and frees Ernest. She enlists his help in breaking into a tooth store, where they take all of the available teeth. Celestine brings the teeth back underground, but when Ernest is found sleeping at the orphanage, the mice police chase Ernest and Celestine above ground, where they are soon pursued by the bear police. They make their escape all the way back to Ernest’s house, which is far from the city. Ernest and Celestine must adjust to living together while embracing their talents and avoiding the police.
The animation on display throughout the film is simply wonderful. The replication of watercolors looks gorgeous and is an excellent reminder that part of the appeal of an animated film is literally the artistry that can be seen on screen (especially colors and textures that bring something unique to the film; something that can be lost in the big budget studio-financed CG-animated films). The replication of the hand-drawn illustrations from the Ernest and Celestine books is quite faithful (with some minor modifications, of course) and brings an old-fashioned quality to the film’s animation. The somewhat muted color scheme in the film represents the lives that Ernest and Celestine have and particularly the situation they find themselves in. The terrific screenplay by Daniel Pennac explores themes of fear and discrimination, as well as the breakdown of societal stereotypes through unconventional means. Ernest and Celestine is also a story about two lost souls finding a surprising connection and a friendship that will ultimately define them. The voice cast, including Lambert Wilson (as Ernest) and Pauline Brunner (as Celestine) was superb (it was the original French language version that I saw at the IFC Center). Ernest and Celestine is a very satisfying experience, and I am looking forward to Patar and Aubier’s next film very much.