Film Review: An animated also-ran is also great

Nominated for this year's Animation Oscar, the excellent “Ernest & Celestine” was, sad to say, not the winner. It was a tough field — hey, there was a Miyazaki film in there too — and I have no unkind words for “Frozen,” the winner, either. We've all heard the frankly hollow line about there not being any losers. But, in this particular case, there is some justification. On the eve of the expansion of its U.S. release, the lovely French/Belgian co-production will benefit from its brief mention in last week's world-televised awards show — one of the dullest ever, by the way.

In outline, the setup is not wholly unlike many of the animated features coming out of Hollywood: lovable anthropomorphized animals play out humanoid conflicts and realize that we all have to learn to live together. In style, pace and humor, however, “Ernest & Celestine” couldn't be more different.

Adapted by Daniel Pennac from Gabrielle Vincent's book and directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, the film takes place in a world of bears and mice. The two cultures live next door to each other or, more precisely, above and below, respectively. The relationship is hostile, but symbiotic: Adult bears are terrified of mice, but tell their children of a tooth-fairy-like mouse, who will take their newly lost teeth during the night. The mice value the teeth as prosthetics, since a toothless mouse is defenseless.

The exact economics of this aren't fully explained, butas in most of the real world the leaders of each society use the threat of the other to control their own. This uneasy arrangement seems permanent... until Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) comes along. Like all mouse orphans, she is training to be a dentist and is expected to bring some baby bear teeth home after a nocturnal raid.

At the same time, we are introduced to Ernest (Forest Whitaker), an outsider among the bears. He wakes up famished from a long winter's nap and heads town in search of food. He arrives, hoping to pick up some money as a street busker, a one-bear band. He almost eats Celestine, but she talks him out of it. Let it be noted that she is a charming and a talented artist, but also a bit of a know-it-all.

Circumstances make them partners in crime and, with police of both species after them, they hole up in Ernest's remote shack. The effect of their initial crimes, however, is nothing compared to their real sin — inter-species friendship — the love that dare not squeak its name.

The visual style is nothing like the conventional Hollywood animated feature. The drawing is sketchier, looking like a collaboration between Ludwig Bemelmans (“Madeline”), George Booth and Garth Williams' illustrations for E.B. White. The humor is mostly gentle and whimsical, without the nonstop gags we're used to.

Adults and very young kids will probably be delighted; some of the hyperactive ages in between may be disappointed by its dissimilarity to what they're used to. I love most of the conventions of commercial Hollywood animation. It's just nice to have an alternative now and then.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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