The quality of narrative within American animated films has risen so incredibly within the last two decades, so much so that Pixar is far from the only animation studio making delightfully entertaining movies for all ages to enjoy. And yet, computer animation has completely consumed domestic entries, and there is very little formalistic innovation. Not to say that the animation itself is subpar (quite the opposite, the attention to textual detail in Frozen alone is quite astonishing), but like many other Hollywood genres, the studios have decided what sells tickets and have limited the formal criteria with which these films choose to tell their story. Which is why we have to turn to foreign markets to see animators who are still free to experiment with radical styles – or at the very least, not use computer animation. Miyozaki has long been the main success with regards to hand-drawn animation, and his last film from last year, The Wind Rises, was another hit for the legendary filmmaker. With the French film Ernest and Celestine, we get something a lot more preciousness; a film made with a childlike consciousness that doesn’t pander, nor condescend to make you feel like it’s anyway made for adults.
The film is based on a series of children’s books by the Belgian author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, and the film is animated with a sparse, watercolor motif in a setting that looks not unlike metropolitan France. The style is gorgeous and understated, a fine compliment to the simplicity of the narrative. The narrative focuses on, of course, the relationship between Ernest, a poor bear who makes spare money performing in the streets, and Celestine, a rebellious young mouse who believes it possible that bears and mice can coexist. The mouse community lives underneath the ground while the bourgeois bear society rules above, but the two communities do complement each other. The mice, so dependent upon the strength of their front incisors, are taught from a young age to steal the loose teeth from young bear cubs as they fall out – these teeth can then be used to replace broken incisors for the mice. The bears, in turn, have a reasonable excuse to help their children believe in the Tooth Fairy. But young Celestine is quite poor at getting the teeth, too often she’s spotted by horrified adult bears who then try to kill her.
When a starving Ernest finds her discarded inside a trashcan, he’s more than willing to eat her until Celestine snappily convinces him otherwise. Talking circles around him, she convinces him instead to help her rob a tooth store owned by the wife of a candy striper who is the reason Celestine was in the trash can to begin with. The heist will help Celestine prove herself to the rest of the community, but when Ernest and Celestine are caught together, they’re ostracized and forced to run away to Ernest’s home in the middle of the forest. There, amid initial hiccups, they learn to coexist, realizing that they both have talents that extend outside of what is expected of them from their peers – Celestine as a painter, Ernest as a musician. As wanted criminals, the outside world is a constant threat to come and ruin their newfound friendship, and the liberation that it brings them. Very quickly, Ernest and Celestine plays out the very hackneyed childrens’ stories allegory of communities threatening the individual, but this is a film that knows its audience (which is to say that this is a film made for very young children) and doesn’t work to make the allegorical elements impress adults.
Earlier this year, The Lego Movie was another animated film that didn’t patronize its young audience. It also spoke with an underlying thesis about individuality. Ernest and Celestine will not be the smash box office hit that The Lego Movie nor does it intend to be, but both films have proven that you can be smart and also be innocent, that you can access the entertainment of children without pandering. The reality is that Ernest and Celestine‘s narrative is so unbelievably twee that it doesn’t really lend itself too much to extensive analysis. It’s far more interesting on a formalistic level that creates the film’s plaintive mise-en-scene and is a welcome alternative to the monopolistic hold that computer animation holds over the American studios. Ernest and Celestine not only understands how to tell it’s own story but also understands the cinematic principles in which to tell it. The film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, losing out to Frozen, but was not officially released in America until a few weeks ago. There is a dubbed version in many theaters, featuring the voice talents of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, and Paul Giamatti. I was lucky to see the film with its original French soundtrack and I hope that those who do get around to it watch it in the original form. No reason to take any of the innovation out of this delightful film.
Directed by Stephane Auber, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner