BENJAMIN K. PAPLHAM | ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST
One of the most popular animals to anthropomorphize is the tiny, fragile mouse. It makes sense: the mouse is the ultimate underdog—or undermouse—with its many natural predators and depiction as a meek, timid creature. Whenever we see a mouse challenge such expectations, we feel delight and triumph for that character. It’s that emotion that drives the Oscar-nominated film, “Ernest and Celestine.”
Based on a series of children’s books by Belgian author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest and Celestine” (2012) is a world where bears and mice live in fear of the other. Bears think mice are thieving vermin while mice believe bears to be savage monsters who devour mice whole. But after a night of sneaking aboveground, the intrepid mouse Celestine (English voice by Mackenzie Foy, “The Little Prince”) makes an alliance with the cantankerous bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), which soon blossoms into an unlikely friendship. This leads to them being marked as fugitives by mice and bears alike, testing whether Ernest and Celestine can overcome speciesism and prove that they are more than they appear.
My favorite element of “Ernest and Celestine” is its art design. The animation is like a giant watercolor painting come to life with the smooth, soft colors outlined in crisp, black pen. It’s not the intricate, highly textured feel that 3-D computer graphics offers, but it’s amazing how much facial emotion the film is able to convey with a few simple, cleverly-placed brush strokes. In fact, the artwork definitely contributes to the impression of a beautiful children’s book projected onscreen: landscapes fading into white at the corners and minimalist transitions where suddenly only a few splotches of color and lines are needed to produce the perfect physical and emotional expression.
I also loved the interactions between Ernest and Celestine. While I certainly enjoyed Ernest’s character, I believe that Celestine stole the show. She has such an adventurous mind and witty personality that it’s impossible not to root for the “undermouse.” Her character is more developed than Ernest’s ,and the stakes are higher for her, as she has to overcome the societal expectations of the predator-prey threat from mice and the animosity toward her species from bears. And that makes it especially humorous whenever Celestine bosses Ernest around.
If people glance at my star rating it may be confusing. Based on what I’ve said, it would seem I’d be more likely to give “Ernest and Celestine” four or five stars. But the problem I have is similar to another film I reviewed earlier this semester, “The Secret of NIMH.” The ending falls flat.
The premise of the film is Ernest and Celestine are two creatures who can prevail against established stereotypes. So by the end of the film, I wasn’t expecting them to magically change the societal mindsets, but neither did I want them to entirely ignore their responsibility to push other bears and mice in the right direction. The stereotype against bears is they eat mice, and when Ernest first meets Celestine, that’s exactly what he tries to do. The stereotype against mice is they are thieves, and when Celestine forms her alliance with Ernest, that’s what she asks him to help her do. The film never addresses that issue, nor by the end does it leave any lasting inkling that Ernest or Celestine are willing to change their respective species. Instead, they become the exception rather than the rule.
Overall, “Ernest and Celestine” is beautifully animated and has a charming wit, but it never concludes the premise it set out to achieve.