Sunday, February 1, 2015
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‘Ernest & Celestine': A magical ode to friendship

Ernest & CelestineW

Once Celestine, left, and Ernest get over their mutual distrust, an increasingly devoted friendship blooms. But it’s also a forbidden relationship in a land where the distinct communities of mice and bears fear each other, and matters are certain to take an unfortunate turn. Courtesy photo

By
From page A11 | February 28, 2014 |

“Ernest & Celestine”
Five stars
Starring (voices): Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Dominique Maurin, Patrice Melennec
Rating: suitable for all ages, despite the ludicrous PG rating for “scary moments”

French/Belgian charmer, quite sadly, is flying under the radar

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

“Adorable” can’t convey my depth of feeling for this enchanting little film.

Indeed, mere words seem wholly insufficient.

Despite being one of the 2013 Academy Award nominees for best animated feature, “Ernest & Celestine” remains virtually unknown to American viewers, aside from the lucky few who may have caught it at a film festival. Frankly, this film’s obscurity is tragic … and typical of an emerging pattern in this Oscar category.

For the past several years, since the rising popularity of animated films has prompted a corresponding abundance of nominees, some of them have raised puzzled eyebrows. While the animation branch’s nominating members are to be congratulated for citing entries from outside the United States, that generosity of spirit hasn’t been embraced by American movie distributors … nor by mainstream American viewers who, already reluctant to subject themselves to live-action foreign films, apparently are even less willing to watch animated foreign films.

Thus, a frustrating pattern has emerged, particularly for dedicated Oscar fans wanting to catch as many nominees as possible, prior to the annual awards ceremony. That has become quite difficult — even impossible — with the animated features, since some of them don’t get released here in the States until weeks after the Oscars.

Back in 2009, the French/Belgian/Irish “The Secret of Kells” didn’t garner American distribution until mid-March … and then availability was spotty, at best. In 2011, the same was true of “Chico & Rita” (Spain and the UK) and “A Cat in Paris” (France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands).

Never heard of any of them? I’m not surprised.

This year, that same fate has befallen superstar Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” and the French/Belgian co-production of “Ernest & Celestine.” Miyazaki’s film, at least, is being released in our market today; Oscar stalwarts have roughly 48 hours to catch it before Sunday’s awards broadcast.

But I’ve no idea when, or even if, “Ernest & Celestine” will hit any theaters, let alone those in the Sacramento Valley … and I’m not holding my breath. Home video release won’t come until June, at which point the film will have been, ah, “enhanced” with English dubbing by a cast of American voice actors.

That’s a shame, because the original voice talent is an important element in this wholly delightful charmer from directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier.

A key element, to be sure, but by no means the sole essential ingredient. Most notably, this film has the lush, hand-drawn watercolor magnificence of early Disney animated films (“Pinocchio” comes to mind) and, indeed, those by Miyazaki. That’s important, because Renner and his co-directors worked hard to duplicate the delightful illustrations found within author/artist Gabrielle Vincent’s beloved children’s series.

Vincent wrote and illustrated a couple dozen “Ernest & Celestine” books, starting in 1982; the final two entries were published posthumously, after her death in 2000. On the one hand, I’m surprised it took so long for her characters to find their way to the big screen; alternatively, I fully understand the apprehension that would have afflicted potential filmmakers who didn’t want to risk ruining a national treasure.

Happily, Renner and his colleagues have done a masterful job. Their adaptation of “Ernest & Celestine” isn’t merely sumptuous visually, with an enchanting watercolor quality that evokes a sense of warmth generally absent in crisply “perfect” CGI features; screenwriter Daniel Pennac also has done a masterful job of capturing Vincent’s imaginative whimsy and gentle moralizing.

Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is a precocious little mouse who lives at an orphanage in a massive and imaginatively conceived underground “mouse world.” Celestine and her fellow orphans are carefully watched by La Grise (Anne-Marie Loop), an elderly mouse who terrifies her young charges each evening, with tales of the “big, bad bears” that exist solely to make midnight snacks of unwary mice.

The bears live above ground, in an equally civilized world very much like our own, complete with shops, watchful police and cozy homes. And buskers, one of whom is the somewhat indolent Ernest (Lambert Wilson), a reclusive bear who tries to earn a living by performing in the town square as a one-man band … a “profession” at which he is, at best, only marginally successful.

Bears, in turn, are terrified of mice, in the same way that generations of human beings have been depicted standing on chairs and shrieking, at the mere sight of a tiny rodent.

But it’s more complicated than the parallel sets of “urban legends” that have fueled this mutual aversion for untold generations. Mice also are the “unseen fairies” who visit in the dark of night, whisking away bear cub baby teeth in exchange for coins under the pillow; these same small teeth are perfect substitutes for the worn-out incisors that adult mice frequently must replace. Mice, after all, are helpless without a good set of gnawing choppers.

Celestine is one of a small group of “dental interns” who sneak topside each evening, sent to collect these teeth. But she’s the least successful of her peers; she’s much more inclined to draw, and has a distressing tendency to create pictures of mice and bears being friends.

Such illustrations naturally horrify La Grise and all other adult mice, who regard Celestine as a foolish free spirit likely to meet an early demise in the jaws of the much-feared bears.

As it happens, things very nearly do go that way, when Celestine first encounters Ernest. But fate and an irritated ursine shopkeeper land Ernest in a heap of trouble, from which he’s rescued by Celestine. Their subsequent rapport, initially as cold as the winter snow, soon thaws with the arrival of spring; it’s the heart of this engaging little story.

Along with the broader crisis that follows, which builds to a quiet lesson in the art of getting along.

The character animation is delightful, with our two protagonists opposites not merely in size, but also in temperament. The candy-loving Ernest is impulsive, clumsy and not terribly wise; there’s more than a trace of Buster Keaton in this bear’s hapless, drolly choreographed antics and Wilson’s blustering vocal delivery.

The sweet-voiced Celestine, in contrast, moves with the delicate grace of a ballet dancer; she’s also practical in a way that Ernest never could be. Brunner’s lyrical cadence augments the softer animation style with which Celestine is drawn, her winsome form so cuddly that we can’t help wanting to scoop her up and take her home.

Mostly, though, the observant Celestine is audacious and candid in the manner of children who’ve grown just old enough to recognize that adults have a tendency to complicate their lives in ways that make absolutely no sense. And this is the story’s key moral: Rules — particularly those that exist only because, well, that’s the way things have been done for years — often serve no useful purpose.

And they get in the way of potential friendships.

Loop is properly stern as the intimidating orphanage warden, and Dominique Maurin is appropriately condescending as the officious Chef de Clinique: the veteran dental supervisor who demands much from Celestine and her teeth-collecting peers.

In all respects, Renner’s film has the nostalgic, old-world sensibility that softly emanates from the illustrations in Vincent’s books. These divergent communities — bear and mice — display the slightly worn comfort that one experiences with carefully cherished bureaus beloved for the memories evoked by each chip and scratch, or a favorite chair whose cushions now conform, over time, with the user’s body.

“Ernest & Celestine” is, quite simply, a remarkable cinematic experience.

Catching up with it, particularly in its original French, is likely to be a challenge … but one well worth the effort.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com.

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