The Oscar nominated French animated film, Ernest and Celestine, gets major points for sweetness. This delicate, uniquely drawn work is endearing, yet its effect quickly dissipates. Functioning as a rather tired paean for tolerance, the story feels thinly sketched and unsubstantial, with critical components of the film’s world possessing an arbitrary quality. Additionally, the English language version of Ernest and Celestine (which is what will be reviewed here) follows the long, exasperating tradition of the voice-acting cast being dominated by Hollywood celebrities hired more for their names than their voice-acting talent.
Ernest and Celestine is about an unlikely friendship, which develops between two dreamers: a bear named Ernest, and a young mouse named Celestine. Their meeting is one of happenstance. Celestine lives in an underground community of mice which cherish their incisor teeth above all else. One of the main responsibilities of the community’s younger mice is to travel up into the surface world to collect teeth that have been discarded by bears (which apparently are the world’s only other inhabitant).
During one of these covert missions (as the mice and bears live in a state of perpetual tension and acrimony) Celestine becomes trapped in a garbage can after being nearly killed by a bear who owns a candy shop (played with gruff bluster by Nick Offerman). She is found by Ernest, a loutish, penniless bear who once had dreams of musical stardom, but now performs songs on the Parisian streets and lives in a ramshackle home in the woods.
As expected, the two characters don’t immediately take to one another. Their relationship develops slowly over the course of the film, with various circumstances (such as petty crime, loneliness and rejection) creating an unshakable bond of comradery, love and understanding.
A good but certainly not great film, Ernest and Celestine suffers because its world feels incomplete. As opposed to more iconic entries to the medium (such as Toy Story or Spirited Away), the film is not in possession of a mythology that is multifaceted or authentic. For instance, what is behind the decision to depict bears in a state of eternal opposition with mice? Why not foxes? Why not moles? And even if one simply accepts the film’s decision on just what animals to anthropomorphize, other aspects of the world, such as the mice community’s fixation on collecting teeth, feel tacked on and meaningless.
Perhaps even more detrimental though are the artistic penchants of the two lead characters. As stated, both Ernest and Celestine are dreamers, and each are talented in their respective art form (Celestine loves to draw and Ernest can play a myriad of different instruments). The film however brushes over exactly why artistic expression is so meaningful to each character. They both just seem to like doing it. This is probably fine, but it certainly seems to negate a lot of each character’s passion, and it makes it difficult to become truly invested in their plights. The sense of urgency, so palpable in something like Woody’s quest to return to Andy (and powerful sense of abandonment due to the arrival of Buzz Lightyear), is not present here. In fact, it’s hard to tell what each character wants, with the exception of being able to stay together.
Thankfully, the friendship between the two characters, which are voiced effectively by Forrest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy, is the film’s main focal point, and on this level the picture is successful. Even with a relatively slim running time (roughly 75 minutes), the film allows itself to slowly explore how a friendship forms, and the mouse and bear move seamlessly from being in a relationship based on convenience to one based on choice.
In a strange way the basic storyline of Ernest and Celestine recalls not other children’s or animated films, but the X-Rated drama from 1968, Midnight Cowboy. In that classic film audiences became immersed in the intense, slowly evolving friendship between Jon Voight’s inimitable Joe Buck, and Dustin Hoffman’s hypnotic Ratzo Rizzo; a connection that allowed the two men to endure against their harsh, blighted circumstances. While Ernest and Celestine is nowhere near so oppressive in tone, there is that same feeling of isolation, of marginalization in the lives of the characters. Hell, even economic desperation seems to exist on the fringes of the story, with Ernest in particular spending much of the film trying to scrounge up enough to eat.
The film’s animation plays a large role in establishing both the loneliness the characters experience, and the warmth that they enjoy through their relationship. This is particularly evident in both the Parisian street scenes – which are full of beautifully realized yet harsh and angular European architecture – and in the cozy clutter of Ernest’s forest abode. The style of the art is a sharp rebuttal to the mainstream paradigm for animation these days. Many of the backgrounds resemble watercolor paintings, with highly detailed line work being traded in for abstract shapes and pastel colors. These techniques feel complimentary to the tone and content of the story, reminding viewers that computer pixels shouldn’t be the only method for delivering an animated tale.
What’s disturbing however is that while the low-key storytelling and distinctive art eschews Hollywood convention, the voice -acting cast assembled for the English language version of Ernest and Celestine is conventional. Whitaker and Foy are perfectly fine as the titular leads, but with such recognizable voices as William H. Macy, Paul Giamatti and Megan Mullally popping up (in addition to Offerman), the story becomes marred. The hugely recognizable vocals distract one from what’s actually transpiring in the scene.
It’s disappointing that the film – in its transition from French to English – felt the need to go down this route, as it is inappropriate with the story’s throwback sensibility. Yet, as always, film is a business, and it could have been worse. At least none of the actors here are as distracting as when Sean Penn’s voice turned up in Persepolis, tarnishing Marjane Satrapi’s intimate and searing memoir with superstar glitz. Ernest and Celestine is largely able to keep its charming, old-fashioned sensibility intact, delivering a story that isn’t perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming, but is still beautiful and delightfully out of time.