Adding a teensy drop of darkness to its tale of interspecies friendship between a mouse and a bear, Euro co-production “Ernest and Celestine” is a charming animated feature inspired by Belgium writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent’s wholesome children’s books of the same name. Helmed by newcomer Benjamin Renner along with Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier, who directed stop-motion toon “A Town Called Panic,” the pic looks completely different from “Panic” with its 2D, aquarelle-style graphics, and feels less anarchic and more skewed toward younger auds. Rugrats in Francophone territories will eat this up, but further-afield prospects will be trickier.
Making use of richly detailed backgrounds and well-managed spatial relationships, the pic establishes two literally parallel worlds: Above ground, bears live mostly in a sleepy looking township, while below the earth, mice dwell in a complex subterranean village, making occasional forays into the sunlight to steal provisions from the bears, particularly teeth left under pillows by young cubs. Because their teeth are so vital to their survival, the mice have developed sophisticated dentistry techniques to replace broken gnashers, and bear teeth are the most prized denture material.
Young mouse orphan Celestine is being groomed for a career in dentistry, but she longs to be an artist instead. She has a sweet meet-cute with outsider bear Ernest, a musician-poet who lives in a secluded cottage in the forest, when she persuades him not to eat her and helps him break into a confectioner’s store instead. After various scrapes with the law for Ernest and reprimands for Celestine for her rebellious behavior, the two set up house together in Ernest’s woodland home.
The script by Daniel Pennac is deliberately blurry about whether Ernest and Celestine’s relationship is meant to be romantic, platonic or more like the love between an ursine parent and rodent child, an ambiguity that children themselves will understand much more than adults. In any event, the other mice and bears don’t get it, and the two mates end up in court on trumped-up charges, a nimbly intercut sequence that’s pulse-quickening even if the outcome is never in doubt.
Although the animation here offers a simplified take on Vincent’s spontaneous, artfully naive pen-and-watercolor drawings, it’s roughly faithful to the feel of the source material, even though the script is completely original. Vincent apparently resisted all attempts to buy the film or TV rights to her work while she was alive (she died in 2000), and she might not have liked the slight sense of archness that’s been injected here to make the pic more palatable to a contempo sensibility. That said, some of the best gags are the more sophisticated, less Vincentian ones, such as a lovely, cartoony meta-joke in which Celestine camouflages a bright red car to match the pale watercolor background of the forest.
Voicework by thesps Lambert Wilson and Pauline Brunner as the leads is adorable but will be the first thing to go if the pic is bought for other territories, which are sure to redub the whole thing.