Review: Ernest and Celestine

I fell in love with the French-Belgian animated feature „Ernest & Celestine” long before I had a chance to watch it and as soon as I saw the first stills and trailers on the Internet, even though I knew nothing about the illustrated books (written by Gabrielle Vincent) from which the story originates. Compared to the avalanche of 3D films that are being released every year, „Ernest & Celestine” promised to be like a cup of hot chocolate made by your mom next to a bland, artificial soda you bought from the supermarket. To be fair, the plot sounded like a story for small children –the unlikely friendship between a bear and a little mouse-, but I still had to watch it. I had some fears that I wouldn’t be allowed, though (the world is not kind to grown-ups who are interested in children’s films; for example, some while ago I wanted to attend an exhibition of puppets and sets from „Frankenweenie” at the BFI Festival, but adults were not allowed unless accompanied by a child).

Fortunately, it was not the case: nobody tried to stop me from attending the screening at the French Institute in London, although I did find myself surrounded by an audience whose average age was a fifth of mine. Taking into account that not one of them caused too much fuss, nobody broke into tears and everybody laughed when it was a laughing matter, we can safely assume that “Ernest & Celestine” accomplished their mission with their target audience. Now, let me tell you how I saw it as a so-called grown-up.
My initial sense of wonder at the film’s visuals remained undiminished all throughout the viewing experience: every frame in “Ernest & Celestine” could be a watercolour painting that I’d hang on my wall. The visual style evokes book illustrations, and since I didn’t get to see the books by Gabrielle Vincent, I was reminded instead of the beautiful Russian illustrated books of my childhood. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say something I’ve said many times before: hand-drawn animation has much more artistic potential than CGI, and here, we’re dealing with a film that tries to explore the possibilities of the medium as much as possible. I remember, for instance, a gorgeous sequence in which winter and spring are interpreted, in a semi-abstract, manner, through music and splashes of colour. Apart from all this surface beauty, however, the story is not as naïve as it seems either.
In the universe of “Ernest & Celestine”, humans are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have two animal populations that behave exactly like humans: the bears, living on the surface of the earth, and the mice, inhabiting an underground city. The two communities have nothing but fear, loathing and prejudice towards each other, until one day, when Ernest the bear and Celestine the little mouse meet and bond over their shared difficulty of adapting amongst their peers. In addition to the usual lesson of being yourself (both Ernest and Celestine would want to be artists, but the people around them have tried to steer them towards more, erm, respectable careers), there is a semblance of political satire which seems to reveal a little anarchic heart of the movie: the two titular heroes are poor and therefore don’t hesitate to take whatever they want from wealthier citizens, authority figures are depicted as monstrous and/or incompetent, and, most surprisingly- Ernest and Celestine don’t want to be welcomed back into their communities. They just want to be allowed to stay away from them, together. It appears that I am indeed a boring adult, as I can’t imagine why else I would try to look for political subtext in a children’s story, but what I’m trying to convey is that the script written by French novelist Daniel Pennac (well-known for his humour) works from many different angles (or, from the perspective of individuals of different ages). The protagonists don’t live in an ideal world, but their world becomes better just because they have found each other.
“Ernest & Celestine” is, in many ways, an old-fashioned film: 2D animation has been more or less declared dead by Hollywood, and its humour is based on slapstick and visual gags much like the cartoons of the old days (unlike those of our modern times when comic dialogue is favoured). However, it looks more fresh and full of life than many new films that are firmly rooted in contemporary times. The feature directed by Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier (the last two of “A town called panic” fame) will be officially released in France on the 12th of December 2012. As for an US release, GKids has already bought the rights and scheduled it for the fall of 2013. I don’t know if this film will ever make it to Romanian theaters, but we can only hope.