Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Ernest & Célestine

The moment I start watching a foreign animated film, I realize how generic the American studio animation is. True, Pixar has been the gold standard for animated features, especially in terms of story and characterization. And theirs are among the few animated films where the director’s hand can be felt. But when it comes down to it, there’s an almost level uniformity to the projects coming out of Pixaar, Disney, Dreamworks, and Warner Bros. So to watch something like the French film Ernest & Célestine is to be reminded taht artistry, style, and uniqueness of visión can all be worked into animation. Also, the story can be based on a children’s book without pandering to children.

Ernest & Célestine isn’t afraid to aim for a higher age bracket by making themes a little more adult and complex. Stéphane Aubier, Benjamin Renner, and Vincent Patar directed this Daniel Pennac adaptation of a series of Belgian children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent. In it, the world is divided into the underground society of mice, and the bears above them. Each world is as developed as our own human world – they have cars, shops, houses, jobs. Down below, the little mice in the orphanage – including our titular Célestine – are told scary bedtime stories about the terrible bears. Everything from below has its parallel above and when a mouse is spotted in a home, all hell breaks loose for the bears’ fear of the little rodents.

On a trip to the surface, Célestine (Pauline Brunner) is trapped one night and then discovered by Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson), a starving and destitute bear. They form an unlikely bond that frightens other members of both societies. This is very much a segregated world in which like remains with like according to custom and tradition supported by superstition and urban legend that stand in contradiction to actual facts. Ernest and Célestine, though they begin as petty thieves (he steals from a candy shop to survive, she steals from a tooth shop to satisfy the survival needs of her community) are trailblazers, forging ahead against their better judgment to achieve an end that is ultimately to the benefit and joy of both worlds.

I love the simple hand-drawn animation that reminds me of childhood and the books I read. As evidenced by the books my son reads, children’s book illustration styles haven’t changed much. It’s imaginative in its simplicity and the dull palette of earth tones helps reinforce the drabness of the long slog of life. Ernest & Célestine isn’t selling a snake oil fantasy like Frozen. It shows us something about who we are and maybe teaches some who are paying attention a better way to behave. And it does it all without shrillness of voice or lazy musical theater.

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