French Film Festival UK: ‘Ernest & Celestine’ is a beautifully realised delight
Based on Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent’s children’s books, Ernest & Celestine is an infectiously joyous piece of entertainment from the duo behind the manic A Town Called Panic, who direct here alongside Benjamin Renner. That earlier film’s stop-motion approach is abandoned for a more traditional hand-drawn animation style, presented in a beautiful, gentle watercolour palette. Ernest & Celestine is also not quite so anarchic in its humour, though one struggles to think of what film could match A Town Called Panic for that, but shares its predecessor’s wittiness regarding heated exchanges and heightened characters prone to snap decision-making.
In the film’s fictional universe, bears and mice live in parallel worlds. The bears live above ground, operating businesses and such, while the mice live below the surface in a metropolis within the sewers. It is universally understood that bears and mice must never interact, with young rodents constantly terrified by stories of “The Big Bad Bear” with an insatiable appetite. The mouse world must have some contact with the upper world, though, as the teeth of young bears are the closest tooth-type to their own and act as satisfactory replacement teeth. Young mouse Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is an apprehensive dentistry intern who must travel up to the town above, sneaking into houses and stealing teeth from under the pillows of young bears. After an attempted tooth theft from a candy shop owner’s son goes awry, Celestine encounters Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson), a hungry but poor bear who lives in a shack in the woods, having journeyed into town to satisfy his sweet tooth. The musician bear and the artistically-minded mouse form a friendship, one that angers both of their worlds, leading them to become fugitives on the run.
For a relatively short film at under eighty minutes, the level of depth and strong central characterisation on display in Ernest & Celestine is highly impressive. The film successfully explores themes of prejudice and tolerance without condescension or a heavy-handed approach, the only exception being a series of dual courtroom scenes that aren’t so fluid in their execution. Outside of this, there’s also a touching look at artistic disposition and collaboration, including a joyous sequence in which the title characters produce a free-riffing dance of sound and painted image that almost feels like a tribute to animation itself.
Special credit must be given to the great work of the lead voice actors, particularly Lambert Wilson’s frequently hilarious turn as the erratic, temperamental Ernest. Their rapport provides much of the film’s extensive comedic highs, though there are plenty of entertaining side characters and brilliant sight gags. As a whole, Ernest & Celestine is a wonderfully playful film, beautifully executed in practically every facet of its production.