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Ernest & Celestine

“Ernest & Celestine” takes place in a fantasy France where the mice live underneath the bear society, but have built a society just as sophisticated as the daylight realm. Celestine is an orphan mouse who loves to draw, and doesn’t think all bears are bad, despite the terrifying stories the matron tells.  Ernest is a brusque busker, who writes songs about how hungry he is. The unlikely pair find themselves partners in crime, hunted by both mouse and bear police, and take refuge in a secluded cabin for the winter, where they overcome their nightmares of each other (hers is of being eaten; his of being overwhelmed by hordes of rodents) and become friends.

The story doesn’t quite make sense, but that’s okay. This isn’t a Chris Nolan film, after all. It’s a children’s story about a bear and a mouse.

The hand-drawn animation is charming in its simplicity; many scenes are more impressionistic, than life-like, sketching the details but leaving large parts of the cell empty, or dark. Life-like, 3D animation has taken over childrens’ movies made in America, to the point where you can’t tell one set of animators from another. (Back in the day, Tom & Jerry didn’t just act different from Sylvester the cat and Mickey Mouse, they looked different.)  

There’s a whole series of Ernest & Celstine books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, and the directors have clearly paid attention to those illustrations when bringing this to the screen.  It’s also reminicent of another French kids’ classic: Celestine is a fearless orphan who finds herself on the wrong side of authority and conventional wisdom, a lot like Madeline. 

Their first encounter feels more like a woman trying not to get “played” by a ravenous man: “Take me seriously, Ernest,” she pleads. “But I’m HUNGRY!” he screams in protest.  But later on, it feels more like the immigrant situation in America: the two are pals as long as they’re useful to each other, but when the danger subsides and Celestine has no place to go, Ernest steadfastly refuses to let her stay with him. “You let one mouse in your house, before you know it, a hundred have come to stay with you while you weren’t looking. There’s no way to get rid of them.”

The story sort of devolves into a parable about two societies that hate and fear each other for no good reason.  That’s fine, I guess. Kids need to be taught that some bears are friendly, and some mice have manners, and you shouldn’t judge someone before you know them. But it’s a better film before that, when the title character are allowed to just be themselves, to argue and squabble and care about each other.  The quaint format is suitable for this kind of story; it feels awfully strained when it tries to be a story about systemic racism and injustice.

Things that don’t make sense:  Do the bears really believe in the tooth fairy? The mice steal teeth from the pillows of young bears, but they don’t appear to be leaving coins. So the mama bears must be sneaking in and placing coins on the pillows, and wondering where the teeth went. Do they think the tooth fairies are just really mean, greedy little punks?

Celestine seems to think that she must become a dentist. But clearly there are other jobs available. Someone has to build everything, and there are cops, and judges, and scary matron mice who run orphanages. Not many artists around, I suppose, but she has options.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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