The New York International Children’s Film Festival is offering screenings of top films for kids and adults. Many are popular and the tickets to official screenings and after party events have been sold out. However, tickets are being offered at venues throughout the city, so it is not too late to see beautiful, groundbreaking, thought-provoking films from around the world for ages 3-18. In the case of Ernest and Celestine directed by Stephane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar which still has tickets available, even adults will enjoy the deeper issues and technical expertise which made this an award winning animated feature from France.
Daniel Pennac based his screenplay for this ethereally artistic and dreamy animation on the characters of Ernest and Celestine by Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent. Vincent (1928 -2000) added to her initial concept of Ernest and Celestine by creating an entire Ernest & Celestine collection. She wrote and illustrated a total of thirty-eight books which encompass the pairs’ various adventures. Each has subtle lessons for children to assimilate as they enjoy the mouse-bear struggles and find solutions in the bonds of friendship. Adapting to themes of their unlikely companionship, Pennac has written a tale of how these two delicious and beautifully rendered characters met, bonded, and began their very first adventure together. In effect the feature serves as a prerequisite to the classic series of Ernest and Celestine books that readers around the world delight in.
The Ernest & Celestine animated feature has all of the elements of an adorable yet meaningful romp through a fantasy land of two disparate animal social cultures. The mice live below ground and control their terrain and society using a hierarchical pecking order fueled by mythologies and mores which promulgate an intense fear of alternate animal societies. Every child is indoctrinated with a horror of the ursine society which lives above ground. Profit motives and survival motives exploit this fear which trends throughout the mice generations. One reason for the antipathy between the two cultures is suggested. The mice/rats depend upon bear teeth when theirs fall out or they will become unproductive and perish. The bears don’t willingly give up old teeth; the mice must surreptitiously steal them. Thus, the mice employ corrupt means to exploit the “alien” culture.
For their part the bears abhor the creatures below ground. Theirs is a community of quaint, charming storybook houses out of Bruges, Belgium, minus the canals. The seemingly sweet dwellings are paintbrush animated in light, watercolors, simplistically drawn. The pastels tend toward pinkish, cream, fade-washed shades. However, all is not fairy tale “nice” in the ursine society. The profit motive also drives the bear population, and we see one example with the candy store entrepreneur. He sells delicious sweets of all stripes and colors to lure the bear children and adults into overindulgence. To gain his profits on the back end, his wife sells bear teeth for the children and adults who will lose theirs eating his sweets. He is without compunction or morals supported by an oblivious social structure equally as corrupt as the mice society.
Both cultures above and below ground are Philistine in nature and represent some of the worst human social characteristics; they are greedy, selfish, exploitative, without empathy, fear-mongering and manipulative. Our two friend heroes do not fit in; they are artists: Ernest is a musician and Celestine loves to draw. Both are not appreciated for their talents and Ernest lives alone in his ramshackle house while Celestine, an orphan, must steal bear teeth to survive. Through a “random” series of events in which Ernest nearly eats Celestine, the two strike a spark of empathy, love, and understanding. This lifts both beyond the fear and death-embracing, indoctrinating cultures that attempted to brainwash them in the name of sustaining an unfortunate paradigm of existence. With their artistic sensibilities they appreciate each other’s gifts and find a peaceful and pleasant “way of being.” These experiences allow them to tap into a reservoir of hope, love, and loyalty so that they might overcome the horrors of what threatens to destroy them when each is caught and imprisoned by the “enemy” side.
Forest Whitaker (Ernest), Mackenzie Foy (Celestine), Lauren Bacall (The Grey One-mouse), Paul Giamatti (Rat Judge), William H. Macy (Mouse Dentist), Jeffrey Wright (Grizzly Judge) do a fine job with their characterizations. Whitaker is grumpy, yawny, sleepy, kind with humorous grunts and groans. Foy is delicate, sweet, and serenely heroic as one would hope Celestine would be. The animations pair beautifully with the selected actors’ portrayals. Lauren Bacall is practically unrecognizable and scary as are Wright and Giamatti. I did love Macy’s removed and “matter-of-fact” explanation of why the bear teeth are of paramount importance to mice survival, and his transformation into bully as he threatens Celestine not to come back until she achieves her bear teeth quota.
If you have not seen the film yet, take your kids or grandchildren who will appreciate it. Do not pass up the opportunity to see it. You will appreciate the underlying themes and animation, music, and screenplay artistry that blend to form a perfect and satisfying whole.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.