Being a foreign film that's only receiving a limited release in America, it's an unfortunate fact that the only likely exposure most people living in the U.S. have had with Ernest & Celestine was its mention as a nominee for Best Animated Film at the Academy Awards recently. And seeing how Frozen took the award, it's likely that most Americans have already forgotten about this humble French flick.
That is very unfortunate, because Ernest & Celestine (Now playing in Washington D.C. at the E Street Cinema) is an absolute delight from beginning to end. With a warm, vibrant, and lively art style, an intriguing premise, and a charming dynamic between the titular lead characters, this is not just a great family film, but one of the better animated films I've seen in some time.
The film takes place in a creative and well-thought out world divided into two halves. On the surface is a civilization not unlike our own, with the notable difference being that every citizen (or at least the ones we witness) is a bear of some kind. In the sewers and tunnels below is a completely separate civilization inhabited by mice, who are both raised to collect young bears' teeth for dentists in a clever spin on the Tooth Fairy legend, as well as to believe that bears are vicious, predatory beasts who will eat a mouse at first sight.
Young Celestine (Voiced in the English version of the film by child actress Mackenzie Foy) is the exception in her society, due to her curiosity and optimism towards the idea that bears could be friendly. When one of her attempts to get a tooth goes badly, she ends up stuck in a garbage can, and is found by Ernest (Forest Whitaker), a solitary bear with a sweet tooth who struggles to make ends meet as a street performer. Though he initially does attempt to eat Celestine, as it turns out bears aren't too fond of mice themselves, her strong will and ability to stand up for herself catches him off guard, and through a series of events that I won't spoil, the two end up developing a friendship.
Naturally, the idea of the two species peacefully co-existing doesn't sit well with anyone else, and despite some early triumphs, the duo eventually become wanted by the law from both civilizations, and end up hiding out at Ernest's cottage for a portion of the film, where they have to learn to deal with each other's quirks and let their friendship develop. From there, things do reach a head, and lead to a conclusion both touching and poignant that I won't spoil.
If you can't tell from the screenshot or trailer above, Ernest & Celestine is actually a traditionally animated, hand-drawn film instead of using characters and backdrops modeled in 3D on a computer. Due to the fact that the majority of American animated features have abandoned this approach, the film earns a fond feeling of nostalgia, and will likely remind viewers like myself in their twenties or older of the days when TV stations would sometimes play foreign or independent cartoon series, films, and shorts from around the world.
It also helps that, even by modern standards, the animation looks very nice. While it doesn't aim to be like classic Disney or Hayao Miyazaki films with insane detail and constantly fluid frame rates, it does have a wonderful, painting-like style to call its own. The character animation is expressive, and the backgrounds are creative, resulting in a movie that is simply fun to look at. Special mention must also be given to a scene that essentially bridges the second and third acts, where Celestine's personal paintings showing the passing of winter into spring are animated to pulse and move with Ernest's classically-styled music. It's like something out of the early parts of Fantasia, and I'd argue that it works even better since it's tied to a concrete plot.
All of this wouldn't be worth much if the story wasn't good, but thankfully, it is. It's simple enough that children won't be confused by it, but interesting enough that adults like myself should find basically nothing to be bored by. If I had to name any complaints, I did realize upon evaluating the big picture that I didn't catch any particular reason for the bears to hate the mice other than making for a good conflict. It also might take a little while for audiences to warm up to Ernest due to his initial hostility, though I got the impression that might be what the filmmakers intended from the start. Also, considering how heavily most American animated films lean on providing nonstop jokes, audiences should be prepared for this to be slightly more subdued in comparison. Again, not to a point that will bore anyone, as it got several laughs out of me, but the main priority for this seems to be simply to tell a good story.
It's also worth mentioning that many theaters running the movie are alternating between the English dub and the original French release with subtitles. Having seen the English version, I can't personally attest to the French version's voice acting quality (Though I've seen numerous great reviews regarding it), but I can personally say that I thought the English cast did an excellent job. Besides Whitaker and Foy, expect to hear the likes of Lauren Bacall, Nick Offerman, and numerous other familar actors. My personal favorite supporting character had to be a no-nonsense head dentist mouse voiced by William H. Macy, who did a great job of presenting a stern demeanor with a comedic edge.
As much as I enjoyed Frozen, after seeing Ernest & Celestine, I can't help but wish that it had gotten the Oscar. Not only do I think it has a better story and art style, but getting an award that big would surely have resulted in wider distribution and bigger audiences. As a result, I definitely think that if you're lucky enough to be in an area where the film is playing, you should go see it with some family members. This is a fun, charming, and thoroughly well-executed piece of animation all the way through, and with The Lego Movie leaving most theaters and the disappointing Mr. Peabody & Sherman being the only alternative, I can't think of a better time to discover a hidden gem like this.