The quirks of international film distribution can lead to some seriously delayed releases on both sides of the coin, with US films taking months to reach the rest of the world, and countless foreign films never even getting a hint of US distribution outside of perhaps a lucky DVD release or the need for a region-free player and an imported disc from its country of origin. Having a big name attached is usually a plus, as is awards garnered from film festivals. The best chance a smaller foreign film has to get distribution lies in cracking the Academy, and a nomination in either the Best Animated FIlm or Best Foreign Language FIlm category (the only two categories they would ever really have a chance of sniffing at a nomination) usually results in enough exposure to make the distribution trip over to the States worthwhile. Such is the case with Ernest and Celestine, a film released in 2012 in France that received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Film this past award cycle. Thanks to the exposure, the filmmakers were able to assemble an impressive English language voice cast and launch a small scale assault into American theaters in late February just ahead of the Oscar ceremony, and now enjoys a home video release.
Hand-animated in an infectious water color style, Ernest and Celestine tells the story of two down-on-their-luck bohemian types whose interests do not seem to jive with the rest of their species. Ernest (Forest Whitaker, the English language version of the film was the only one available for rent at the time of viewing) is a bear from a long family of judges who would much rather spend his days playing and writing music, and has constructed an elaborate one man band set up to busk on the streets of his town. Celestine (Mackenzie Foy) is a mouse who would love nothing more than to spend her days painting, but is tasked with nightly excursions to the bear town to steal teeth for use by the local dentists. Neither of them approve of their predetermined lots in life, and a chance encounter turns them into fast friends. Outcast from their respective societies, Ernest and Celestine go into hiding as both mouse and bear alike hunt them for their indiscretions.
There is a youthful exuberance to the style and animations of Ernest and Celestine. Its hand-drawn aesthetic and jerky, varied lines evoke an old school bootstraps mentality that values character over uniformity. The setting and character designs are that of a children’s book, and the final product seems to exist halfway between the storybook polish of classic Disney and the more adventurous designs of a Triplets of Belleville or the like. Ernest may be huge and hulking, bumping into walls and ceilings as he tries to navigate his girth through too-small enclosures, but his face and eyes are kind. Forest Whitaker shows quite a bit of range in his vocal performance; he is such a towering presence on screen that it makes sense to see him inhabit such a large character, but this role is nothing like anything he has been in recently. He grunts and mumbles and speaks faster than perhaps he ever has, and brings Ernest to life with ease. Celestine is tiny and cute, always clad in an expressive little red coat. Mackenzie Foy’s performance is sprightly and energetic. They could not be more different, making them the perfect pair for a family film like this. The rest of the cast is rounded out by such luminaries as Paul Giamatti, Lauren Bacall, William H. Macy and the erstwhile duo of Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. They are roundly excellent, though Offerman sounds a bit too much like Ron Swanson, which can be a minor distraction.
The film for the most part goes where one might expect, with the two becoming fast friends during some winter hibernation only to be pulled apart once the thaw begins as each culture wants to punish the other for their tresspasses. The final sequence, cutting between two court scenes as Ernest is admonished by the mice and Celestine by the bears is quite effective, and a wonderful way to wrap the film up with a little bit of action while reinforcing the central moral of looking beyond one’s skin and the expectations heaped thereupon for the deeper meaning of the self. Some of the imagery during the later sections of the film (especially a few nightmares brought to life) are quite striking in their design, and the film remains a feast for the eyes of any or all who take the 80 minutes to give it a watch. It is the perfect sort of family entertainment to engage the imagination and sense of wonder while still telling a grounded story. It may be a touch slight, but for the target audience, it does exactly what it should.