First published in EyeforFilm.
Ernest And Celestine opens with scribblings on paper in a naïve style – and then we see the pencil responsible, itself hand-drawn but also animated as it produces these childish pictures on the page. “What are you drawing, Celestine?” a girl is heard asking. “This is all wrong. A bear and a mouse can’t be together.”
Of course, in a world where mice can both speak and draw, “can’t” is a relative concept, although it takes the eye of an artist like the mouse Celestine to realise this, or perhaps like Gabrielle Vincent, the Belgian author and illustrator from whose series of children’s books – first published in 1981, with titles continually added till Vincent’s death in 2000 – this film has been lovingly adapted. Living in an underground world reminiscent of the sewer city from Flushed Away, little orphan Celestine has been reared on bedtime stories about the ‘Big Bad Bear’, and warned of the ursine taste for mouseflesh.
Indeed, there would be no contact at all between mice and the bears living in the town aboveground were it not for the fact that bears’ baby fangs make perfect false teeth for mice, and so Celestine and her fellow orphans steal into bears’ houses at night looking for the incisors that cubs have left beneath their pillow. Not that they ever actually talk, or show themselves, to their unwitting dental donors.
Celestine senses that the stories told by mice about bears are no truer than the bears’ tales of tooth fairies that the mice are all too ready to exploit – and so when a series of misadventures brings her face-to-face with cantankerous, hungry Ernest, instead of showing fear she comes to a mutually beneficial arrangement with him. Drawn together by chance, Ernest and Celestine soon discover that, for all their difference in size, they have a lot in common. For much as Celestine is often mocked by her fellow mice for the pictures in her journal and her general dreaminess, Ernest, too, is a sort of outsider artist, living alone on the outer margins of his community and struggling to make a crust from his musicianship. As this comically disproportionate couple become both firm friends and fellow fugitives from their respective communities, their winter idyll seems doomed eventually to come to an end. After all, a bear and a mouse can’t be together, can they?
“All of you are prejudiced,” declares Celestine to the bears that have put her on trial, while elsewhere, in a mouse-run hall of justice, Ernest faces similar judicial blindness. These climactic courtroom scenes are the weakest section of Ernest And Celestine, both over-contrived in their symmetry and overstated in their theme – but let’s not carp about a film that in fact boasts a manic multiplicity of preoccupations. Sure, small-town prejudice and the fear of otherness are roundly exposed for their absurdity, but the sensitivity of the artistic disposition and even the importance of good dental care are also sensibly celebrated.
No doubt Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, whose previous work on A Town Called Panic and Pic-Pic is overtly referenced in background posters and graffiti, contributed to the film’s imaginative sense of chaos, while their co-director Benjamin Renner (director of the 2008 short A Mouse’s Tale) gives the the animation its attractive and elegant storybook style. All of this seems fitting in a film so concerned with the possibilities of artistic collaboration. Indeed, in one memorable sequence, Ernest and Celestine produce a free-riffing symbiosis of painted image and sound that not only demonstrates the miracles that can happen when a bear and a mouse do get together, but also vividly stages the abstract essence of animation itself.