Ernest and Celestine is a lovely animated film whose effortless charm, whimsical and gentle sensibilities, quirky pacing, and beautiful visual style combine to make a vivaciously entertaining and wonderfully distinctive piece of art. Based on the series of children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine is a delight from start to finish.
There is a plot to Ernest and Celestine, but most of it turns out to be mostly sideshow. Mice are taught from a young age not to trust bears, while bears live in comparable fear of mice. The iconoclastic, artistically-inclined Celestine is skeptical of the myths surrounding bears, while Ernest lives visibly apart from the bears in a run-down cabin in the woods. His rumbling belly and empty larder bring him into the city where a chance encounter with Celestine begins their relationship, which is born of necessity and is marked at first with deep mutual mistrust. However, their relationship soon evolves to one of mutual benefit, as each proves useful to the other. A few mishaps and misunderstandings later (some of which involve breaking-and-entering and not-so-petty theft), both Ernest and Celestine find themselves on the run from both bear and mouse police forces, ending up in Ernest’s cabin for the winter. Their relationship grows in surprising directions from there, as gradually established trust turns to genuine, charming friendship as each finds a kindred spirit in the other despite their difference in species.
There’s a certain explicitness about most American animated films. Their earliest minutes are dedicated to packing in as much exposition as possible to explain What This Movie Is About. Once the ground rules and the characters are established, it’s full speed ahead to slalom through their plot points on the way to the ending, as lessons in self-realization are learned and persistent obstacles are finally overcome. One of the earliest signs that Ernest and Celestine isn’t an American film is the more measured sense of pacing and the fact that, in the end, the movie isn’t really about anything but watching Ernest and Celestine’s chance meeting blossom into a true, deep friendship. It’s almost a half-hour into this movie’s 80-minute running time before the pair finally meet, and much of the world building that occurs in that half-hour turns out to be little more than a sideshow. It’s a visibly different manner of storytelling than what we’ve come to expect from Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and other American studios, and I feel it’s one that trusts its audience more. While we see Celestine and her friends traveling to the bear city, we only learn that they’re there to retrieve bear’s teeth indirectly through a bear’s bedtime story to her cub. The importance of the teeth to the mice is only revealed much later. I sense that an American film would have placed the head dentist’s scenes much earlier and made that element a major driving force of the film. Similarly, much of Ernest’s past is quietly hinted at in his earliest scenes, but is only partially explained much later in the movie. Finally, there’s a refreshing openness about lethality in Ernest and Celestine, from the fate that awaits mice in the jaws of bears to the climactic scene of the movie (remarkable for being surprisingly benign despite genuinely frightening circumstances). Ernest and Celestine seems more willing to risk frightening a child in ways that seem taboo to American audiences, but where the fears seem geared to be easily and believably conquered, both by the characters and by the audience.
Ernest and Celestine is also a wonderful testament to the power of hand-drawn animation, successfully evoking the original art of Gabrielle Vincent’s books and lending the movie a distinctive visual style. The movie looks like watercolor paintings come to life, which makes for a nice counterbalance to the physicality and dimensionality of CGI. I love CGI and the degree of texture and weight it can lend to animation, but it just doesn’t seem to be quite as capable of making something as deliberately artistic as Ernest and Celestine. The style of Ernest and Celestine is highly non-representational: deliberately simplified renderings of real things rather than accurate reproductions of them. There are several scenes in the movie where backgrounds aren’t even fully filled in, as though the painter got bored and decided to stop filling in details that weren’t important. Others make great use of open space on the screen, using bare white expanses to represent a cloudless winter sky or a snowed in landscape. I think attempting either trick in CGI would look like a visible flaw or a rendering mistake, while the hand-drawn take makes the entire film feel like a deliberately crafted work of art. There’s also a beautiful little interlude where a few stray paint strokes by Celestine come to life as abstract shapes and silhouettes dancing to Ernest’s violin playing, with paint strokes and music becoming ever more elaborate until they transition seamlessly to the next scene of the movie. Sure, it might stop the movie dead for a few minutes, but it’s so successful as pure art that the brief digression easily justifies itself.
The hand-drawn animation is also the source of much of Ernest and Celestine‘s sense of humor, many instances of which are visible in the clip above. There is something qualitatively different about a hand-drawn action sequence vs. one in CGI, and Ernest and Celestine’s improvised escape from the underground mouse city is a wonderfully fluid and rapid-fire experience (and is soon topped by a slapstick car chase through the bear’s city). I find it remarkable that I’m also quite tickled by the way the horde of mouse police officers combine into a giant, semi-liquid mass that flows around corners and erupts out of a manhole cover. There’s also an extremely amusing bit early in the film as Ernest trudges his way to town with a one-man band setup on his back; bits of it flap oddly in the wind as he walks through the winter woods, while his panhandling performance in the city is a divine bit of animated silliness.
The screener copy of Ernest and Celestine is the new English dub, which seems to be a fine translation of the movie. Forest Whitaker has the right gruff and growl to his performance while still being able to bring out Ernest’s kinder side. Mackenzie Foy is a bright, energetic Celestine, balancing the brash assertiveness and quavering uncertainty that mark all children at that age. She is entirely winning in her first meeting with Ernest as she fast-talks her way out of being eaten, while Whitaker wonderfully communicates Ernest’s bewilderment at this brassy little mouse’s attitude. Lauren Bacall has a small but quite memorable part as an old gray mouse who tries to spook her charges at a boarding school with tales of the big bad bears; her performance is has the same wonderful theatricality as her turn as the Witch of the Wastes in Howl’s Moving Castle. William H. Macy has a smaller but equally memorable part as the fussy, nebbish head dentist of the mice.
Two years ago, I was eternally grateful that GKids imported A Cat in Paris to American shores, and I find myself feeling even more thankful that they have imported Ernest and Celestine. It is a wonderfully crafted, tremendously endearing film — a delectable, hand-drawn bon-bon that’s light and refreshing and completely satisfying.