Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: "Ernest & Celestine"

Director(s): Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, & Benjamin Renner
Runtime: 90 minutes 

Advances in animation have brought us some truly spectacular achievements over the years. One need look no further than Pixar's finest to see how beautifully rendered and detailed an animated film can become. Yet despite the wonders WALL-E and Up conjure, it would be a mistake to write off hand-drawn animation, even though its time on the throne has long since passed. A film like the French production Ernest & Celestine, however, indicates that old fashioned, simpler-looking works are still a vital side of the animated world. Ernest and Celestine is more than just beautiful and charming; it's a film that clearly demonstrates that certain stories are best told with an old-fashioned touch. 

Where the average Pixar film is stuffed to the gills with detail (Merida's hair in Brave), Ernest & Celestine favors a look that combines pencil sketches and watercolor paintings. Based on Gabrielle Vincent's beloved series of children's books, the film's directors and animators only marginally tweak the author's visual style. The images are soft, rounded, and stylized, and complemented by a color palette that favors broad strokes over precision and perfection. 

That same statement also applies to Daniel Pennac's screenplay. Set in a world populated by the surface-dwelling bears and sewer-bound mice, Ernest & Celestine has a well worn story of putting aside cultural (not to mention species-related) differences. Pennac's story, in the hands of the three credited directors and the delightful voice cast, is simple, but never simplistic. The message may be anything but new, but it's handled with a delicate touch that avoids moralizing or cheap schmaltziness. 

If the brisk story (barely 90 minutes) has any weaknesses, they come early on, only because of the necessary set up of the titular bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson) and mouse Celestine (Pauline Brunner). Once the pair officially become literal partners in crime, the film is nothing short of a joy to watch. Ernest & Celestine has no big moments or twists, and instead takes pleasures in expressing the small pieces of the narrative with style and wit. Take, for instance, the police force of the mouse world, shown as an amorphous blob of faces and uniforms in pursuit of culprits. Then there's the film's standout sequence, in which Celestine's love of painting and Ernest's love of music come together for an ingenious living montage as winter gives way to spring. 

And even though the film will be released in US theaters with an American cast, it's worth seeking out the original French dub. Wilson, Brunner, and the supporting cast all turn in lovely work. Even when the writing becomes a tad broad, the cast is always a pleasure to hear. Wilson and Brunner's scenes together have just the right amount of push and pull, and the actors' voice work is nothing less than charming. 

Despite its lesson about prejudice, the real draw here is the central relationship. Though the ending is predictable, it is refreshing for its devotion to the two protagonists. The script makes its point, then backs off and concludes with a moment that returns to its characters, rather than a broad "happily ever after." Near the end of Ernest & Celestine, an end that arrives far too soon, Ernest tells Celestine that they have many adventures in their future. I hope he's right. 

Grade: B+

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