In a landscape where animation is dominated by noisy CGI and 3-D spectacle, it's refreshing to come upon a gem like Ernest & Celestine, the charming and understated French film from the creators of A Town Called Panic. A recent Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature (it lost to Frozen), this tale of interspecies friendship and dentistry is a sublime example of form following function.
Beneath a village of bears, there is a subterranean kingdom of mice who carve out their empire using their incisors. Celestine (Foy) lives in an orphanage, and when she's not being told scary stories about the evil bears above, she is sneaking around their homes at night, stealing errant teeth to be repurposed to fit the mice down below. One night, she has a run-in with Ernest (Whitaker), a poor, bohemian bear foraging for food in trash cans. They strike a mutually beneficial deal – she helps him find food, he assists in the tooth-gathering – and a friendship begins to grow. The pair are outcasts in their respective societies, with Celestine dreaming of becoming an artist instead of beginning a career in oral surgery that is her fate, and Ernest eschewing his familial duty to study law in favor of making music. After they run afoul of the cops, they end up holed up in Ernest's shack outside of town, pursuing their art and waiting for the inevitable confrontation with the authorities, who are none too pleased with their taboo and unprecedented companionship.
Based on a series of children's books by the late Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest & Celestine has an animation style that’s deceptively simple. Strong lines and pastel watercolor shadings evoke the work of Beatrix Potter, and the backgrounds are often rendered transparent or not at all, giving the animation a very Impressionistic feel. And while clocking in at 80 minutes, the film never feels like it's rushing toward the end, allowing the small, gentle moments of Ernest and Celestine's blossoming relationship time to breathe. The film's messages of accepting others and following your dreams are well-worn tropes to be sure, but the pace and the style of E&C, not to mention its wonderful attention to detail, lift the film from being merely sweet to being something special.[Note: This review is based on the original, French-language version. The film is being shown here in the newly dubbed-into-English version.]