Ernest and Celestine: Cannes Review

"Ernest and Celestine"
A bear and a mouse cause a major ruckus in this charming Franco-Belgian animated film

Screenwriter Daniel Pennac brings the popular children's book of the same name about two unlikely friends to the big screen.

CANNES - A delightfully old-fashioned kid’s flick with a meaningful message, Ernest and Celestine (Ernest et Celestine) offers up yet another intriguing Euro alternative to your typical Hollywood 3D animated fare. Based on the popular children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, this story of an improbable friendship between a deadbeat bear and a crafty mouse reps a solid sophomore effort from Belgian filmmakers Vincent Pater and Stephane Aubier (A Town Called Panic), who, along with co-director Benjamin Renner, have designed a clever and timeless tale that should reach select territories outside Francophonia. StudioCanal will roll out locally before Christmas.

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The Ernest and Celestine series was created by late Belgian author and artist Vincent in the early 1980s, and currently includes over two-dozen volumes, many of which have been translated into English. With an unadorned naturalistic style that recalls the original Winnie-the-Pooh books of A.A. Milne, the stories are centered around the relationship between Ernest the bear (voiced by Lambert Wilson) and Celestine the mouse (voiced by Pauline Brunner), who try to remain b.f.f.’s in a world where bears and mice have the same kind of problematic dealings as, well, cats and mice.

But the twist here is that bears live very much like humans do, driving cars, going to school or, in Ernest’s case, performing in the street to make money during the brutal winter months. Meanwhile, mice (and rats for that matter) have been relegated to their natural social status, living in the sewers and scrounging above ground to survive – except instead of food scraps they actually poach the discarded teeth of baby cubs, which they stockpile in their underground city for a vast dental enterprise.

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If this sounds absurd, the screenplay by bestselling French novelist Daniel Pennac keeps things on a believable plain (for a fairy tale), and it’s easy enough to invest in the plights of the duo when they eventually cross paths and run away together to Ernest’s remote cabin. This quickly sets off a furor in their respective communities, and as judges and police forces crack down on the forbidden pair, Ernest and Celestine gradually becomes a cautionary fable where friendship tries to stand the test of bigotry and intolerance.

Stepping up to make his first feature-length animation after the Cesar-nominated short, A Mouse’s Tale, Renner brings Vincent’s colorful storybook universe to life in a number of clever set-pieces and decors, the highlight being the miniature laboratory where the mice are subjected to a series of rather painful-looking implant surgeries and other such dental atrocities. While the team of Patar and Aubier adds a certain Belgian brand of dark humor to the formula, the film’s straightforward 2D renderings and mellow soundtrack (by jazz cellist Vincent Courtois) keep things broadly appealing.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Les Armateurs, Maybe Movies, StudioCanal, France 3 Cinema, La Parti Production, Melusine Productions, RTBF (Television Belge)
Voices: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner
Directors: Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stephane Aubier
Screenwriter: Daniel Pennac, based on the children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent
Producers: Didier Brunner, Philippe Kauffmann, Vincent Tavier, Stephan Roelants, Henri Magalon
Executive producer: Ivan Rouveure
Art director: Zaza and Zyk
Animation director: Patrick Imbert
Graphic character animation: Sei Riondet
Music: Vincent Courtois
Editor: Fabienne Alvarez-Giro
Sales Agent: StudioCanal
No rating, 78 minutes