Ernest & Celestine is one of those effortlessly charming cartoons where everything is basically very simple -- it's a story about animals that are supposed to be enemies being friends -- yet filled with whimsical details that make it unique. For example, in this world, the mouse population uses discarded bears' teeth as replacements for their own worn-out incisors, and dentistry is mouse society's most noble profession. If you asked me to make up a connection between mice and bears for a children's story, I wouldn't have come up with that in a hundred years.
Based on a Belgian series of books by Gabrielle Vincent, the film opened in Europe at the end of 2012 but has only now come to American shores, first in its original form (which is what I saw) and soon with an English-dubbed version. Most people on this side of the Atlantic had never heard of it until it was nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, beating out supposed shoo-ins like Monsters University. The recognition is deserved. This hand-drawn, water-colored French-Belgian concoction is a sweetly deadpan delight.
Mice and bears are the major species in this world. Both live in human-like societies, with the bears above ground and the mice below. They avoid all direct contact with one another. Mice are taught from childhood that bears are fearsome, mouse-eating ogres, and you should run for your life if you ever encounter one; bears, meanwhile, consider mice to be vermin and would never let a rodent in their house, let alone befriend one. Despite the supposed danger, mouse orphans like little Celestine (voice of Pauline Brunner) are sent above ground at night to sneak into bear homes and take the teeth that cubs leave under their pillows, for purposes of mouse dentistry. That's how orphans earn their keep (a rather Dickensian turn).
The opportunity for some much-needed cross-species understanding comes when Celestine happens to cross paths with Ernest (voice of Lambert Wilson), an eccentric vagabond bear known to his community as a street musician, beggar, and local kook. Celestine shows the hungry bear how to break into a candy shop's basement supply room, and then Ernest returns the favor by helping her get a cache of bears' teeth to bring back to her people. Technically, this may be "theft." In addition to that, both communities are appalled and frightened by Ernest and Celestine's friendship, and they become fugitives, leading to a goofy Odd Couple living situation and an escalating series of adventures.
The dynamic between Ernest and Celestine is the tender, goofy heart of the film. They're less adversarial than Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, less affectionate than Annie and Daddy Warbucks. Both are independent types, not really in need of companionship, and they're unsentimental. When they're apart, the film very nicely draws parallels between their lives, showing us their similar experiences, dreams, and wishes. The message, of course, is that we're all the same under our skin, but the film earns points for not getting preachy or maudlin about it.
The simple themes are complemented by an un-showy style of animation, with line drawings and unfinished details. Things move within the frame, but the frame itself rarely moves, like a comic strip come to life. It was directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, the former two being the insanely creative pair behind A Town Called Panic. (Look for a Panic poster on the bear cub's bedroom wall.) This film is a lot more sedate, but it has a similar sense of wonder and imagination, and in their uncluttered drawings the directors stage some bits of slapstick that are almost Chaplin-esque. And thanks to their restraint against overselling it, their sublime story captures a few emotions, too.