Most U.S.-made animated features seem to work from the same basic plot basis: Some trouble happens, some character discovers an inner power he/she didn’t suspect existed, a crisis/villain is overcome (or a quest accomplished) and lessons are learned all around. Happy ending.
Disney-made features are even more transparent. While adhering to the above formula, they also work as tryouts for potential Broadway musicals. See: “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and the forthcoming “Frozen.”
Foreign-made animated efforts are different. Sure, they often involve challenges – even quests, if you will – and characters are forced at times to overcome daunting odds. But often they don’t. And anyway, they almost always have a different feel. Think of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly his 1988 film “His Neighbor Totoro” or his 2001 Oscar-winning effort “Spirited Away.” In Europe, consider Jean-Francois Laguionie’s 2011 Oscar-nominated film “Le Tableau” (or “The Painting”).
Now we have “Ernest & Celestine,” a co-production of France, Belgium and Luxembourg that is based on a series of children’s books written by the late Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent. Vincent, whose real name was Monique Martin, wrote more than 30 books in the “Ernest and Celestine” series before she passed away in 2000. Vincent, who illustrated her own books, provided only minimal storylines and dialogue. Mostly she just set scenes in which an adult bear named Ernest shepherded, and resolved problems caused by, his little mouse charge Celestine.
When adapting Vincent’s stories into a feature film, the filmmaking trio of Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner had to come up with a story that would both service the characters and fill in a feature-length running time. So screenwriter Daniel Pennac came up with this solution: He sets Vincent’s characters in a world split between bears, who live above ground, and mice, who live below. Both societies believe they are superior to the other, and this prejudice – plus others – keeps them separated.
Then one day the orphan mouse Celestine runs into the ne’er-do-well bear Ernest. Mice have a fascination with teeth. And Celestine, who dreams of being an artist but who is expected to become a dentist, encounters Ernest – a poor, hungry bear who would rather busk in the city square than do just about anything, except maybe eat marshmallows and sleep.
After a few initial problems, which involve the lumbering Ernest being outsmarted by the clever, nimble Celestine, the two become friends. It’s only then that the film, no doubt influenced by Disney and its animated clones, becomes something familiar: Our two protagonists are ostracized by their respective communities. And though the two do commit a series of crimes – burglary, theft, destruction of property – they become outlaws mostly because they dare to break the taboo of cultural assimilation.
“Ernest & Celestine,” which opens Friday at the Magic Lantern, is a kid’s film, so you know a happy ending is forthcoming. But along the way, the filmmakers stress messages of tolerance, acceptance, loyalty and the power of love.
It doesn’t have a signature Broadway moment, with anyone warbling something about the need to “Let It Go,” but that’s actually one of the film’s good points. If you decide to see it, you’re likely to discover any number of others.