First impressions are everything. Taking this into account, the first impression of the DCA this Saturday was that of a sea of children sitting rows in front of me with mouse masks on, whispering excitedly about the school trip they were on. A sense of wonder hangs over the cinema. At the film’s gentle, self-referential opening, in which a pen sketches a bear very similar to the main character before our eyes, a hush comes over the cinema. It’s the kind of beginning that does not announce itself ostentatiously , but rather ushers us in like a good host.
Everyone is here to see Ernest et Celéstine, a new adaptation of the old children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent. The film tells the story of two outsiders trying to exist in a world which condemns them. In this fictional universe, bears live identical lives to humans, wearing suits and working nine-to-five jobs, and fearing the mice that live below in the sewers. Custom dictates that the bears and the mice cannot mix. A young mouse named Celéstine is searching for bear teeth above ground in order to keep up the supply of incisors to replace the worn down teeth of the mice below ground. On one disastrous mission, Celéstine inadvertently befriends a starving busker bear named Ernest. As might be expected, events after that go far from smoothly.
Despite the inherent silliness of the premise, the masterful screenplay by author Daniel Pennac and the unobtrusive soundtrack keep the film from slipping into the absurd. The loose-lined characters and soft watercolour of the original books is retained, the fluidity of the animation lending itself to a dreamy, fairytale aesthetic. The wonderful mise-en-scène, which flows seamlessly through a busy underground mice metropolis and quiet country homes above ground, adds to the magic. In stark contrast to Stephen Spielberg’s animated blockbuster, Tintin, this film stays true to the original’s feeling.
There has been a renaissance in animation for the past thirty years throughout Europe and Asia; one need only think of Sylvain Chomet’s recent films or anything from Studio Ghibli. This film is equally rich in complexity and detail as any of Chomet or Studio Ghibli The fading lines of the film’s art allow for some fascinating sequences which seem to toy with the very medium within which they participate. To make matters even stranger, two of the directors, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, are known as the creators of another very different Belgian animation: A Town Called Panic (2000-present). That anarchic and silly stop motion show does not seem to have informed their newest work (except for a poster for the show cheekily decorating one bear’s wall). Yet the self-referential nature of much of the story, which repeatedly distances itself from fairy tales and fantasy, reveals an almost postmodern preoccupation with storytelling itself. At many points, the animation is so fluid that it suggests that we are witnessing an entirely new type of children’s story being created right in front of our eyes.
All this is being said, such comments risk seeming too academic, and treats the animated film perhaps more seriously than it warrants; what matters first and foremost is how enjoyable a film is, and the audible laughter and coos of shock and awe from the younger audience members are the most succinct way of describing this lovely film. All the small details which add up to create the film’s world, including mice that bench-press mousetraps, a corrupt husband and wife who work as sweet vendor and dentist respectively, and generally incompetent police officers, make for a warm, tender and funny experience. Anyone who wants a dignified and intelligent film which still knows how to make you smile should see Ernest et Celéstine. The school trip was surely a success.