Film stories about grouchy old curmudgeons redeemed by plucky young orphans are a dime a dozen: The only thing distinguishing them from each other, and making them worth more than a twelfth of a dime on the open market, is what the filmmakers do with the details. Annie packs in catchy, memorable songs. Despicable Me adds goofy supporting characters and makes its curmudgeon into an intriguingly competent supervillain. The Oscar-winning Kolya gets pretty cloying, but focuses on the its bearish Czech cellist protagonist in plenty of detail; the various film adaptations of A Little Princess play up the orphan’s stunning fall from wealth and prosperity.
But none of them take the familiar trope off the familiar path so far as Ernest & Celestine, the latest thoroughly enjoyable animated feature from the directors of the giggly Belgian stop-motion oddity A Town Called Panic. The Oscar-nominated film (which did win the César, France’s Oscar equivalent) lays out two complete societies—a sophisticated, rustic bear village above, and an elaborate rodent world built in tunnels underneath it—and brings together a grump from the former and a dreamer from the latter. The form of the story, drawn fairly loosely from Gabrielle Vincent’s picture books about Ernest and Celestine, is tremendously familiar, but screenwriter Daniel Pennac invents plenty of colorful strangeness to make their entire world seem like a place viewers have never visited before.
Celestine (Pauline Brunner) is a mouse living in an orphanage where the terrifying matron (Anne-Marie Loop) terrifies kids with stories of the Big Bad Bear emerging from hibernation to gobble down thousands of little mice. Celestine’s entire society is intensely defined by its relationship with bears: the striker on a city clock is shaped like two rats pounding on a bear-head-shaped bell, bear anatomy charts adorn clinic walls, and rodents train on anti-bear techniques in the town streets. But the mice and rats of the city below also need bears: Celestine and her fellow charges, as apprentices to an imperious dentist, are charged with stealing bear teeth to file down as false incisors for unfortunate rodents who’ve lost their own. Still, Celestine dreams of a bear friend, and constantly gets in trouble for doodling mouse-and-bear buddies. Meanwhile, above, grumpy loner bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson) hibernates in his distant cottage, until his rumbling stomach sends him to town to illegally busk for coins. The first encounter between the two title characters is nearly fatal, but they soon discover a mutual need.
While the scenes of bonding between Ernest and Celestine feel sleepy, sweet, and unrushed, the film itself is more high-energy than its airy look implies. The film’s animation looks like a series of simple storyboards for a Hayao Miyazaki film: airy lines, soft watercolor washes, a loving care given to the look of the countryside. And like Miyazaki’s films, Ernest & Celestine has an unforced authenticity and a feeling for emotion, from Ernest’s uncontrolled rages to Celestine’s childish sulks and winsome melancholy. But in spite of the film’s delicate, abstracted visuals, it also has a Miyazaki-esque propensity toward chaos and calamity. A pair of surreal nightmares give the film a much darker tone than its sunny exteriors imply, and the surprisingly explosive ending may be more intense than young viewers can handle.
Ernest & Celestine isn’t just cute or thrilling, though: It’s openly funny, in a wry, unpredictable way familiar from A Town Called Panic. It zips breezily from Ernest’s improvised busking routine (all of which amounts to “Feed me, dammit”) to a wild chase routine in which rat cops blur into an amorphous, intimidating, many-headed blob. It explores the silly side of the bear/mouse dynamic without puncturing the specificity that makes the story work.
But above all, it’s written and directed intelligently, without condescension for the audience or characters. Many parallels between Ernest and Celestine are clear in the narrative, from their ambitions to their temperaments, but they’re never overtly spelled out. Further parallels develop throughout the film, leading up to a terrifically breathless, but above all smartly concieved sequence where the directors cut between the heroes as they have similar experiences in separate locations.
Even the English dub of the film is winning. The idea of hiring a cast of familiar name actors to voice animated characters is becoming increasingly tired and obvious, but the cast is perfectly chosen, and features some pleasant surprises, even in tiny roles: Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy do fine work as the bear and mouse leads, but Paul Giamatti, as a squalling, tempestuous rat judge, is particularly fantastic. Also on the cast list: William H. Macy as the dentist, Lauren Bacall as the orphanage matron, Jeffrey Wright as a particularly gruff grizzly, and Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as an entrepreneuring bear couple who own a candy shop and a dental-prosethetic shop, and chuckle about how they ruin teeth on one side of the street, and replace them on the other. In the French and English versions alike (both are playing theatrically in America), the cast chews up the scenery as thoroughly as real rats and bears might.
For all the chases and shouting, Ernest & Celestine still feels like a small, quaint picture compared to calculated heartstring-yankers like its fellow 2013 Best Animated Feature nominees Frozen or The Croods; its handmade look and relative subdued simplicity leaves it feeling more like 2011’s Winnie The Pooh, another genial throwback to earlier eras. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It closes with Celestine wistfully asking, “And after this, will there be other stories, Ernest?” “There’ll be plenty of other stories, Celestine!” he tells her. He could be nodding to the fact that there are more than 20 Ernest & Celestine picturebooks, though only a handful have been translated into English. But he could just as easily be promising a sequel. A film this accomplished makes that tired old trope sound appealing, too.