Oscars: The Tale Behind Animated Feature Nominee 'Ernest and Celestine'

When Ernest and Celestine earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature, it was a big moment for this touching, subtitled France-Belgium film that cost just nine million Euros (roughly $12.2 million) to make and was the first feature out of animation school for Benjamin Renner, one of its three directors.

In earning the nomination, the movie, which also was directed by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, outpaced far more high-profile movies -- including Pixar’s Monsters University and Blue Sky’s Epic -- to join three Hollywood hits: Despicable Me 2, The Croods and Frozen, as well as The Wind Rises, the final film of respected Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

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“I still can’t believe it,” Renner told The Hollywood Reporter, “especially just being nominated along with The Wind Rises. Miyazaki is one of the directors who made me want to do animation. I don’t know if I will be able to meet him at the Oscars, but I think that would be the greatest thing.”

Based on the Belgian book series by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine is the story of an unlikely friendship between a mouse and bear that has already earned a string of honors, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award in the animation category, France's Cesar Award for best animated film and the Cristal Award for best picture at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. It also screened at Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, and is nominated for six Annie Awards.

This past weekend, distributor Gkids Films premiered a dubbed version at Sundance, with a voice cast including Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman and Jeffrey Wright.

In the story, Celestine, an orphaned mouse with a talent for drawing, lives below cobblestone streets in a village of mice that fears bears. When she forms an unexpected friendship with a down-on-his-luck bear named Ernest, who has a passion for music, both the villages of mice and bears are unable to accept their camaraderie.

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The central messages are about friendship and prejudice. “For me it’s like Romeo and Juliet, but about friendship,” said Renner. “The societies are fighting each other, though they don’t really know why or remember why they don’t like each other. Friendship can be born in this situation.

He added: "A theme of the film is also creation -- just the pleasure of creating [such as drawings or music]. The friendship is really becoming strong in the scene during which Celestine is drawing winter turning to spring, and Ernest is making music."

The characters are hand drawn and animated using a computer; the backgrounds are watercolor paintings. "I wanted the audience to feel like they could just pick up a piece of paper and do the same...just draw," said Renner

Ernest and Celestine will be represented at the Feb. 1 Annie Awards for animation, for which it is nominated for best animated feature, as well as best direction, character animation, production design, writing and editing.

GKids -- the distributor behind prior Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells, A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita -- is releasing the English language version of Ernest and Celestine in the U.S. on March 14.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA