Bedtime Story Springs to Life

Ernest et Célestine
(France/Belgium/Luxembourg, 79 min.)
Dir. Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stéphanie Aubier; Writ. Daniel Pennac
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner.
Courtesy of Mongrel Media
Crack the spine and curl up with some popcorn, for Ernest et Célestine is a bedtime story come alive. This French animated film—winner of the César (French Oscar) for Best Animated Film—is vivaciously adorable and extraordinarily rendered. The joy of watching the painterly cartoons and reading the subtitles makes the experience of Ernest et Célestine much like reading a children’s story and watching it spring to life from the pages of the book.

Ernest et Célestine, quite appropriately, should be enjoyed by parents and children alike in the way that both generations relish a nighttime reading session equally. The film is based on the series of children’s books by the late Gabrielle Vincent, which chronicles the tales of two mismatched misfits. Ernest, voiced by Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men, Catwoman), is a sugar-loving bear, while Célestine, voiced by Pauline Brunner (Cars 2), is a pint-sized mouse. Bears and mice don’t co-mingle in the painted streets of Animal Land. The animals, actually, live in separate societies: bears roam the streets, while mice hide underground.

Bears and mice fear one another, as each animal-town keeps interaction at bay by a little fear-mongering. Bears fear mice for many of the same reasons that we humans do, since they sneak and squeak through our clean, tidy houses—a mama bear even screams like an old lady from Looney Tunes when Célestine appears in her den. Mice, on the other hand, fear bears thanks to the natural order of the food chain, albeit hyperbolically so, thanks to a fine bedtime story told to Célestine and her litter of friends by the dormitory schoolmarm. (Fairy tales are often so grim.)

Mouse and bear set aside their differences, though, and Ernest and Célestine band together as a pair of roguish misfits. Ernest et Célestine, like every good fable, offers a smart uplifting lesson that parents can teach their kids after reading “The End.” As the pair of outsiders joins forces and stands up to their narrow-minded species, the film offers a morale that resonates easily and soundly with the messages of anti-bullying that are circulating a soundly in many homes and schools. The lesson isn’t the least bit on the nose, though, so the moral of the story doesn’t override the film’s amusing play.

Accentuated by a jazzy score by Vincent Courtois, the adventure of Ernest et Célestine is an enchanting odd-couple story full of whimsical charm and humour. Wilson is fun and gruff as Ernest, while Brunner adds a childlike innocence to the voicing of Célestine. The two outsiders are most loveable, though, for their adorable animated interpretation, which renders them in smart, simple strokes.

The film feels fully appreciative of the canon of children’s lit that precedes it, and it paints an Aesop Fable in a striking fairy-tale-land of watercolour forests and cities. The team of animators in Ernest et Célestine paints a world that recalls the sparsely, yet richly, rendered illustrations of a children’s book: rarely do the images of Ernest et Célestine span the full width of the frame; rather, they fill a white page with a splash of colour that brushes the friends’ world in smooth, playful strokes. Ernest et Célestine provides only the bare necessities in its remarkable illustrations, as the images blend into the background and gradually wash out into whiteness, allowing the viewers to fill the gaps with their own imagination. This film will delight young viewers with its frisky story of the mouse and the bear, but the grown-ups in the theatre might appreciate the film even more thanks to its unique, nostalgic visual scheme.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Ernest et Célestine screened in Ottawa at The ByTowne as part of the Canadian Film Institute’s DiverCiné Festival.

It plays at TIFF Kids April 10, 11, and 20.