The Oscar-nominated animated French-Belgian film is a simply rendered tale about a friendship between a mouse and a bear, painted with watercolor backgrounds and hand-sketched characters. In a movie landscape crowded with awesome digital animations and forgettable big-budget cartoon blockbusters, "Ernest & Celestine" is a humble oasis of gentle and inventive storytelling.
Though the film lost out to Disney's mighty "Frozen" at the Academy Awards, children and adults will be thrilled by this meek underdog, which is being released both in its original French and an English redubbing voiced by Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti and child actress Mackenzie Foy. (This review is of the French original, which holds the charm of hearing little children mice speaking timidly in French. Be warned: The cuteness is almost unbearable.)
An orphanage of mice has gathered around Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner, the daughter of "Triplets of Belleville" producer Didier Brunner, also a producer here), a bright young mouse who—despite the stern warnings of their frightful headmaster (Anne-Marie Loop) that such ideas are dangerous—imagines a bear and mouse as pals.
In the world of "Ernest & Celestine," this is tantamount to heresy. The mice live below ground and the bears above—the car-driving, shop-keeping human equivalents in this universe.
It's when Celestine is on such a fairy mouse mission that she's discovered by a shrieking family and thrown out of the house and into the trash. The next day, she's unwittingly rescued by Ernest, a grumpy and woefully unsuccessful street-musician clad in a ragged old overcoat and hat. (When police confiscate his one-man-band instruments, Ernest eats the ticket.)
Desperate for food, he initially tries to swallow Celestine, too, as he rummages through garbage cans. Though greatly outsized, she cheerfully extends her paw and introduces herself. The plucky Celestine then slaps him across the nose and chastises, "Do you think a little mouse like me will fill you up?"
But after Celestine leads him to sweets, they start up an unlikely friendship and, later, become wanted burglars on the lam. Celestine is sought by mice police (for Celestine's affiliation with a bear), while Ernest is pursued by bear police (for his food stealing and, to help Celestine, tooth thievery). Even holed up in his country cabin, they don't immediately hit it off, as Ernest still turns his nose up at living with an inferior mouse.
It's a little story, told economically and with graceful minimalism. Sound effects have the simplicity of a Richard Bresson film. The music by jazz cellist Vincent Courtois is a sweetly melancholy companion to the fairy tale, which despite its cuteness, has a rascally French sense of humor, too.
Where did such a lovely little movie come from? It's based on the whimsical children's books by the Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent (the first "Ernest & Celestine" book dates to 1980) and directed by the young French animator Benjamin Renner, joined by co-directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier.
Together, they've created not just a positively charming movie, but an ode to the tactile pleasures of handcrafted artistry. Moviegoers will swear the coloring ink must have stained their local theater's movie screens.
It's very nearly the sweetest thing ever, a magical reminder that the movies just need a little heart and the resolve to be intimate when so many films would rather boast their size. It's a movie to share, like a cherished picture book or a beloved Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip, with imaginative pipsqueaks like Celestine.
"Ernest & Celestine," a GKIDS release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of American for "some scary moments." Running time: 80 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.