Here is a film that takes place in a world exclusively populated by mice and bears. The mice are told that the bears are savage killers, and that they should never be approached under any circumstances. The bears are told that the mice are horrid pests, and that they should be exterminated. Then a friendly mouse named Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) meets a friendly bear named Ernest (voice by Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai), a friendship develops and the rest of the world descends into hysteria. The moral of the story: maybe understanding those who are different from you is a better idea than staying insulated and harboring stereotypes.
If the basic idea sounds awfully familiar, well, it is. Lots of children's movies express the notion that we should all try to get along, or that differences are a good thing, or that life is better when we all work together. Still, these are thoughts worth repeating, particularly when they're repeated with as much tender elegance as Ernest & Celestine repeats them. This is a film which has the simple beauty of a great children's book (probably because it's based on a great children's book – or rather, a series of them, penned by the Belgian author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent).
The first thing you'll notice is the distinctive animation. The fact that it's a hand-drawn film made in a CG-animation era grants it at least some level of distinction, of course, but it goes further than that. There's a beautifully rough, ragged quality to the imagery, as if we're looking at full-color sketches rather than a slick finished product. The imagery offers lots of gentle pastels and muted tones, standing in sharp contrast to the eye-popping colors of most children's movies. It offers a refreshingly soothing atmosphere, and don't mistake the word “soothing” for “dull”: there are plenty of visual wonders to behold (the elaborate dentistry facility run by the mice springs to mind, as does the bustling miniature city the mice inhabit), and the animation often crackles with energy.
The story takes its time getting from point A to point B, yes, but that's because it leaves plenty of room for boisterous, genuinely funny comic interludes and charming character beats. There's a joyous early sequence in which Celestine helps Ernest break into a candy shop, and seeing Ernest's gleeful reaction to his good fortune is infectious. In another wonderful scene, two bears sit down with their child for a discussion of economics. One parent runs a candy shop, the other runs a dental office, and the former is deliberately used to increase the profits of the latter. Meanwhile, the poor child is denied any sweets, lest he fall into the dreaded cycle of candy-n-cavities his parents have established.
The film was made in France, but the English-language dub is exceptionally well-handled, particularly in terms of the voice actors chosen. Forest Whitaker doesn't merely provide his own distinctive voice, but creates a real character. His gruff, excitable take on Ernest is perfect, and I never would have guessed it was Whitaker if I hadn't seen the credits. Celestine is the quieter of the two characters, but Foy's gentle, timid performance is right on the money. Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Megan Mullaly (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day) and Jeffrey Wright (Source Code) voice a variety of bears, while Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep) and William H. Macy (Fargo) voice assorted mice. The characters these actors create feel so charmingly vivid, particularly Macy's haughty dentist (as you've probably gathered, dentistry plays a surprisingly large role in this mouse/bear universe) and Wright's stern judge (who shares one of the film's most emotionally affecting scenes with Celestine).
The more I consider the film, the more I marvel at the many ways in which it manages to make a familiar idea feel fresh. There's a timeless quality to the storytelling which isn't found often enough in animated films geared at children (or movies in general, for that matter), and it has the best sort of all-ages appeal (the kind in which everyone enjoys everything, as opposed to the kind in which kids enjoy energetic visuals and adults enjoy pop culture references and innuendo). It's a big old bear hug of a movie.
Ernest & Celestine
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 80 minutes
Release Year: 2013