Taboo friendship is one of the many resonant themes in the sweetly
strange and delicately animated “Ernest & Celestine,” which is up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and is co-directed by Stephane
Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner. The French film is based on a series
of twenty children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, which follows the ongoing
adventures of a bear and mouse, illustrating both literally and figuratively
that odd couples can endure over time.
Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner in the French version; Mackenzie Foy in the American dubbed version) is a young mouse with
aspirations of being an artist, but forced into dental school. (The head mouse
at the dental office where she studies waxes poetic on the importance of the
incisor to the greater mouse civilization.) The best way to procure extra
incisors for beleaguered mice missing teeth is for the students to steal them from under the
pillows of sleeping young bears who await the Tooth Fairy in the world above. But
this tried-and-true method encouraged by the establishment involves risk.
After Celestine helps a bohemian street-musician bear, named
Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson; Forest Whitaker), out of a jam, she requires his services to
help her break into a bear dentist’s office and loot the place of all its pearly whites.
When the cops — both bear and rodent alike — discover that Ernest and
Celestine are the unlikely and dissimilarly sized duo who committed the crime, the
two are forced to hightail it to Ernest’s hermetic cottage in the woods, where
they discover they make very pleasant roommates.
“Ernest & Celestine” strikes a fine balance between
gentleness and wackiness. The wacky part makes sense — Belgian animating duo Aubier
and Patar are the creators of the brilliantly bizarre television series and
subsequent 2009 film “A Town Called Panic.” That film’s ebullient randomness mixes well here with the adorably unhinged script by author Daniel Pennac, giving the soft
pastel watercolors of “Ernest & Celestine” and the fluffy cuteness of its two main characters an edge
For example, in the film one entrepreneurial bear lays out
his shrewd business plan: Own a candy shop on one side of the street, and a dentist’s office on the other. Rot bears’ teeth with sugary holes and then send them
across the way for dental work! A perfect cycle of moneymaking, and a perfectly
strange note that fits right into a film chock-full of such
But amid the whimsicality there’s also a message about
difference. The bear world and the mouse kingdom are strictly separated — one is
above ground and the other is subterranean, a miniature Paris-like town in the
sewer systems. Aging mouse teachers instill in their students myths of Big Bad
Bears who eat little mice. Unsurprisingly, when a bear is actually confronted
with a mouse, the immediate reaction is “Eek!” as opposed to “Yum!” (Though
Ernest is destitute enough upon first discovering Celestine that he considers
the second option, an aspect of their burgeoning friendship they eventually
Really the only thing these animals have to fear is fear
itself. Yet there’s also the distinct suggestion that society smothers creative
passion out of individuals. All Celestine wants to do is draw, yet she’s forced
to collect teeth. Ernest makes so little money as a musician that he’s forced
to rob a candy store. Where do these artistic types fit in if they’re not inherently
interested in the dental or tooth-decaying businesses?
The answer is the woods, a place removed from cultural norms
where a bear and mouse can set up house together. But as earlier films have
told us — think “Badlands” — two criminals eluding the law can only enjoy the
peace of a self-made paradise for so long. Because “Ernest & Celestine” is a
movie primarily for children and then adults, it doesn’t have the tragic timbre
of Terrence Malick’s equally wacky and gentle debut feature.
Yet children have a way of understanding serious matters,
which is why they’ll be delighted but also fascinated by Ernest and Celestine.
The fuzzy pair fights for understanding and acceptance, and against the segregated
towns of panic that keep them from being who they want to be.
“Ernest & Celestine” hits theaters February 28, via GKIDS.