Last week, I reviewed The Wind Rises, which is a great example of mature storytelling in the animated form, but I will always find the charm of children’s animated movies particularly enchanting. I was, as a result, excited to watch Ernest & Celestine, a French-Belgian movie directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner that came out last year (well, at least in any form I would be able to see it).
The basic premise is that mice and bears share a world, but not a society; mice live in fear underground, while bears live most analogously to humans in the overground. Celestine (Pauline Brunner), though, doesn’t understand why mice must hate bears. As a result, she befriends Ernest (Lambert Wilson), a bear who can barely afford to feed himself.
The premise and art match the film’s storybook origins as a series by author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent. For those of us that appreciate the distilled narrative and artistic beauty of the form, that’s obviously a plus. For those who worry that such a style might result in a simplicity of thought and creativity—well, don’t. Although complexity isn’t a prerequisite to quality, the subtle social reflections in the movie enhance the power of children’s stories: morals through metaphor. The social distinctions between bears and mice are built out of fear, and even when the two groups would find it mutually beneficial to work together, they refuse to out of fear. It takes the two outcasts, the titular characters, to understand how to bridge the differences.
I don’t think I need to state some obvious analogues from our own world. Maybe these aren’t brand new ideas, and maybe they’re overly didactic. But they’re sincere, and they’re certainly good lessons. Most importantly, though, they are not the movie’s only successes. Those would include the animation, characterization, and the writing. Oh man, the writing. It is so delightful, so sharp, so adorable. Simple gags such as the basic “roommates split the room” trope flourish in this movie because they fit the characters and add a unique twist and charm. I actually laughed while watching this movie, which I sometimes have to force myself to do even in comedies. Nothing about this movie is good “just for a kids movie.” All of it, the writing in particular, is good. Full stop.
I cannot say how much of this excellence stems from the storybooks. I can say, though, that the film actually adapts the material to film by utilizing the quality unique to the medium: movement. The animation reflects storybooks but also uniquely incorporates actual motion in the frame. One particularly enchanting scene involves Ernest playing a song, and Celestine painting “how it would look.” The moment pushes forward the characters’ relationship, impresses the viewer, and adds a touch of originality and whimsy to the story.
What more is there to say about Ernest & Celestine? It’s sweet; it’s well written. It made my day better. I am an avid fan of animation and children’s stories because I think that their distillation of narrative can allow for more engaging ways of telling a story than more “literary” works. Ernest & Celestine is an example of this, and it bridges that troubling gap between stories made for kids and stories that are worth telling.