Based on the popular children’s books by Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest & Celestine is a warm wonder and a pure representative of how great family films can be.
The animated picture tells the story of an unexpected friendship. The first half of this pair is Celestine, a young mouse living in an orphanage. Despite being read a nightly bedtime story about the “Big Bad Bear” that gobbles up mice by the handful, Celestine finds the warning of the tale too much to be true. She doodles bears in her journal, that is when she isn’t busy collecting teeth, a necessary task for her kind who use their chompers in all facets of life.
Her counterpart is Ernest, a kind of loner bear going through a hard time. Ernest has a home, just little in the way of money or food. He tries to make some cash busking, and this too fails to succeed.
Scolded for her poor procurement of teeth, Celestine heads up to the land of the bears in search of molars, canines and the lot. After an unfruitful attempt, Celestine gets trapped in a garbage can, only to be discovered the next day by a hungry Ernest. Bargains are made to help one another out and, eventually, a bond blossoms.
Ernest & Celestine is remarkably simple narrative, made so by its tenderness, humor and visuals. Three people were involved in the direction, including Stephanie Aubier and Vincent Patar, the pair behind the terrific absurdist stop-motion picture A Town Called Panic. Where that film found joy in its aesthetic of plastic toys parading with little in the way of maneuverability, Ernest & Celestine is a lush effort. The animation style, inspired by Vincent’s books, is that of a water color painting whose inhabitants freely roam around the frame. The images aren’t merely beautiful, they feature a parade of clever visuals; mice working bench-pressing traps, Ernest clumsily smashing up a candy store and countless others.
The laughs are often derived from these flourishes, as well as tiny, very specific character traits. The utter excitement Ernest can barely contain when he finds out about a free sweets, with his eyes particularly popping at the mention of marshmallows. Later, Celestine reveals her innocent naïveté when she thinks a quickly drawn mask can trick the police into thinking she’s a bear. These aren’t jokes going for belly-laughs, choosing instead to give lights tugs on the heart.
It’s all a marvelous telling of the unlikely ways individuals find friends and that obvious surface differences are just that; surface differences. Towards the final act, an elderly, wise bear asks Celestine why she would ever want to do something as strange as live with a creature like himself. Celestine responds, “Why, you live with a bear, don’t you?” Truly something special.
Ernest & Celestine opens in limited release in Seattle tomorrow.