Computers have become capable of infinite wonders when it comes to animated movies, but every so often it’s nice to get a “Lilo and Stitch” or a “Spirited Away” (which employed partial CG) or a “Triplets of Belleville” to remind us of the depth and richness of more traditional cartoons. Characters soaring over landscapes in 3-D can be a blast, don’t get me wrong, but there are other pleasures to be found from the medium.
The delicate watercolors are just one of the elements that make the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine” such a delight. The tale of an unlikely friendship between a big, hungry bear and a small, talented mouse, this French import plays out like the kind of picture book that you love as a child and still treasure as an adult. It’s a subtle creation, offering the perfect mix of whimsy for kids and wit for grown-ups.
The film is set in a world where bears dominate above the ground while mice are relegated to the sewers below, and both sets of creatures are thoroughly suspicious of each other; bears think that mice are disease-ridden devourers, while the mice are told bedtime stories with a moral to beware the evil bears who want to gobble you up.
When ursine street-musician Ernest (voiced by Forest Whitaker in the English-language version) first crosses paths with young Celestine (Mackenzie Foy, who played Renesmee in the final two “Twilight” films), he’s a very hungry predator while she has been sent out to gather up bear teeth as part of her internship. (The French version of the tooth fairy is a mouse, and “Ernest & Celestine” plays on that mythos to create an entire industry involving rodent dentistry.)
He wants to gobble her up, but she shrewdly helps him break into the candy store owned by George (Nick Offerman), who sells sweets to children so that they will eventually need to buy replacement teeth at the store across the street owned by his wife, Lucienne (Megan Mullally).
As Ernest and Celestine begin helping each other out, they discover they’re kindred spirits — Ernest became a musician over the protests of his family, who wanted him to be a judge like his father and grandfather before him, while Celestine would much rather be an artist than a dentist. But when their species are sworn enemies, can these two friends find a place to be together?
The English-language cast is generally on par with the French one; Whitaker captures both the gruff exterior and the well-hidden mushy center of Ernest just perfectly, although Lauren Bacall, while entertaining, doesn’t quite reach the heights of Anne-Marie Loop as Celestine’s stentorian headmistress. Offerman and Mullally, who have pepped up any number of indie comedies of late, have fun with the material, while William H. Macy (as a dictatorial dentist) seems to be channeling James Urbaniak’s nerdy scientist character from Adult Swim’s “The Venture Bros.”
Daniel Pennac’s screenplay, based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent, has a lot to say about pursuing your dreams and not buying into societal prejudices, but it delivers those ideas with grace, never throwing Lego bricks at your head to get across its point.
Not having read Vincent’s book, I can’t say what innovations are hers and which ones come from directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, but “Ernest & Celestine” provides one visual treat after another, whether it’s the underground (but unmistakably French) mouse village or the surging wave formed by thousands of tiny gendarmes.
I don’t want to make “Ernest & Celestine” sound too twee – it’s got pratfalls and chase scenes and funny banter. But it also builds to a climax that’s genuinely moving and sweet. Treat your kids — and yourself — to a film that doesn’t loan itself to sequels or fast-food tie-ins but that will nonetheless stay with you and become the kind of experience you’ll want to pass along. Like a great picture book.