Timing might be the key to success for the charming Oscar nominee Ernest & Celestine. True, the movie has no real brand name recognition (at least in this country) but there’s not much on local screens for children, so that alone could carry the day. The fact that it’s a French-Belgian creation poses no problem since the soundtrack has been re-recorded with an English-speaking cast — and it is a beautiful, seamless job of dubbing, too. Plus, the movie is just so darn beguiling that it’s pretty irresistible. The film comes from a series of children’s books by Belgian writer-artist Gabrielle Vincent, who never allowed a film of the stories to be made during her lifetime. It is, however, hard to imagine that she would disapprove of the results here. This unassuming little movie contains not one speck of the post-modern snark that has plagued animated movies for over a decade. It has no interest in being “with it.” Not only does it look like hand-drawn animation, but it has the gentle, water-colored appearance of a children’s book from the 1950s (the actual books are more recent). Despite its three directors, it all feels personal and hand-crafted. Even its retrofitted English soundtrack doesn’t change that.
The story is simple, detailing the unlikely friendship of a not-very-successful street musician bear, Ernest (Forest Whitaker), and would-be artist mouse, Celestine (Mackenzie Foy, The Conjuring). It all starts when a hungry Ernest finds Celestine trapped in a garbage can. At first, he thinks she’ll do for a tasty snack, but Celestine points him in the direction of a candy store — and the basement window of its storage room. So begins their peculiar relationship, which is further solidified when she gets her bruin buddy to help her burgle a store full of bear teeth. You see, in the universe of the film, bear teeth are a necessary commodity in the mouse world. They are used to replace lost rodent incisors — said incisors being the very backbone of the mouse civilization, the way in which their subterranean mouse city and its amenities were created. (The story is simple, the world of the story is much less so.) This act, and their forbidden friendship, leads them to become not just outcasts but criminals on the run.
This is what drives the action, but the center of the film is built around Ernest and Celestine adjusting to each other. Celestine — in fact the entire mouse world — has been taught to hate and fear bears. Even though Celestine has never quite bought into this, the teachings linger around the edges. Bears, on the other hand, view mice as vermin. Ernest operates on the belief that if you let one mouse into your house, you will soon be overrun with them. But not only has fate thrown them together, it soon becomes obvious that the diminutive Celestine is much better at taking care of Ernest than Ernest is at taking care of himself. It’s a learning process in which much of the joy comes from their differences. This also allows them the freedom to be what they want to be, since neither have defined notions of what the other is “supposed” to be.
The drama is held in place by the fact that they are fugitives from both worlds — something that of necessity will intrude on their fairly idyllic existence. What happens is delightfully complicated and, yes, it will bring home the simple moral that lies beneath the whole movie. I have deliberately left out the details of the two worlds, the mechanics of the mouse dental school, the arrangements between certain businesses, etc. Those things and their delights should be discovered in the course of the movie. Oh, this may not be a great film — though, frankly, I think it’s much better than the film that did win the best animated feature Oscar — but it is so dear, so gentle, so charming and pleasantly funny that it ought to be treasured for those rare qualities alone. Rated PG for some scary moments.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas