ERNEST & CELESTINE is a movie that achieves what most films aspire to, particularly those for children: it transports you wholly to another world. This can be seen from the very start, with crude drawings taking form over the credits style. These simple images reveal themselves to be a storybook drawn by the film’s protagonist, the precocious (though never obnoxiously so) young mouse, Celestine. Right away, we are struck by the effortless beauty of these images; in this scene and periodically throughout the film, the characters and their surroundings bleed into the foreground like watercolor paint soaking into a sheet of paper. It is as powerful an introduction into the film’s gentle aesthetic as is possible.
The movie is based on a much-loved series of storybooks by Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, and it is much concerned in the stories adults tell children. In the film’s opening scene, Celestine and her fellow young mice hear a cautionary tale from an elderly mouse known as The Grey One, about The Big Bad Bear (or le Grand Mechant Ours in the original French; while the American voice cast features many talented and game actors, the rhythm of the French dialogue, to me, feels essential to the film’s playful nature). “How can you be sure he is so bad?” Celestine asks. The Grey One has another fable ready in answer to this, “The Story About the Little Mouse Who did not Believe in the Big Bad Bear.” “Only in fairy tales can bears be friends with mice,” she says. Which is of course true, although ERNEST & CELESTINE itself is something of a fairy tale, and the truth within turns out to be more complex.
We are next introduced to Ernest in a sequence evocative of silent comedy, where the only sounds are the clattering of his messy house as he stumbles about looking for something to eat. Ernest himself clatters a bit as we see him in the closest thing he has to a day job, busking in the town square as a one-man band. Much as Celestine is singled out for questioning her elders, Ernest is hassled by the police for making noise. Already the movie is at work instilling in its young viewers a healthy distrust of authority. More on that later.
Celestine leads several of her fellow mice on their nightly excursion above ground, to harvest the loose teeth of young bears, teeth that are explained to be the backbone of the underground mouse society’s economy. The film communicates this strange conceit in all sorts of fun ways in the background design (as well as a focus on teeth, which is foregrounded in the opening scene. This, along with a dentist’s office straight out of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, may make some audience members squirm a bit), and it is here the movie reveals its concerns about the working of systems, seen in macro with the interconnectedness of the bear and mouse societies, and in micro with the workings of one of the principal bear families, a husband and wife team where the husband runs a candy shop, and across the street, the wife sells high-end dentures. These systems operate with the intuitive logic of a great children’s story, while at the same time having potent things to say about the society we live in. The audience soon learns that the myth of the Big Bad Bear is not just one the adult mice teach their children, but one they believe themselves. Much is made of how the archetypal myths of their society reveal their unconscious biases. Heady stuff for a kids’ movie, but it’s never delivered in a way that feels didactic.
The scene where Ernest & Celestine first meet is a masterpiece in miniature: Ernest, digging through trash cans to try and find something to eat, stumbles upon the sleeping Celestine, who accidentally wound up in the trash on her last tooth hunting misadventure (Celestine, clad in a red hooded overcoat, evokes both Little Red Riding Hood and the Little Match Girl). Celestine must talk Ernest out of eating her in a scenario that plays like an Aesop’s Fable meets Screwball Comedy. When trying to politely reason with him doesn’t work, she slaps him in the face and shames him out of his decision to eat her in a rapid fire burst of dialogue that seamlessly transitions from criticizing the whole situation as ludicrous (“Bears only eat mice in storybooks!”), to critiquing his hygiene and insisting on helping to clean him up (this despite him being the one who found her sleeping in a trashcan), to finally leading him to the candy shop on the corner, where he can gorge himself as much as he wants. Thus begins one of the great movie friendships.
In addition to its wealth of settings, ERNEST & CELESTINE offers a wealth of storytelling modes, from the madcap physical comedy that comes with the first third’s setting out of the premise, climaxing with a chase that leads from the Rube Goldbergian underground Venice of the mice to the aboveground Parisian streets of the bears, to the pastoral middle third, taking place entirely in Ernest’s cabin as the two lay low from the authorities (almost a cuddly version of the middle third of BADLANDS). Finally, the film reaches its conclusion as a courtroom drama, and it’s here the subtext of the earlier scenes dealing with the interrelated societies reveals itself as a rather stirring paean to a form of justice that protects those who fall outside of societal norms. The film manages to educate without ever feeling “educational,” delivering strong moral lessons without ever lecturing the audience. The shift from simple childhood morals to more complex adult ones is executed perfectly. Many movies purport to be “all ages,” but ERNEST & CELESTINE is genuinely a movie for all ages, with an ending that will likely hit even harder for adults than for kids (it gets me all misty every time, anyway), promising to make this not just a great movie to see as a child, but a great movie to grow up with.