Hand-drawn animation is such a rarity now that any new example of the form feels precious. Hollywood has completely given up. The only feature-length, traditional cartoon to be theatrically released by a major studio in the past five years is Winnie The Pooh, which Disney probably felt it couldn’t get away with computerizing. So, these days all the old-school charm arrives from overseas, though the voices tend to get redubbed into English. Such is the case with Ernest & Celestine, an endearingly nutty French-Belgian adaptation of the series of children’s books (also Belgian) by Gabrielle Vincent. American stars like Forest Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, Lauren Bacall, and Nick Offerman have replaced the original cast, but the movie’s watercolor pastels and whimsical sensibility still feel arrestingly foreign. Kids will enjoy it for its sheer loopiness, while adult fans of animation can revel in its divergence from every other ’toon in town.
At a glance, Ernest & Celestine admittedly looks familiar: It’s an odd-couple buddy picture featuring anthropomorphized animals. Bears and mice are the only two species in its world, with the former living as pseudo-humans on the city streets and the latter inhabiting an enormous underground city. The first indication of anything unusual is a number of apparent non sequiturs involving teeth, which finally make sense when it’s revealed that the mice are all dentists who require bears’ teeth upon which to practice their trade. But Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), a young mouse, doesn’t want to be a dentist, and she finds a kindred spirit in a bear named Ernest (Forest Whitaker), who’s likewise alienated from his own kind. The two quickly become fast friends, which is strictly forbidden by mice and bears alike; their efforts to remain together and follow their respective dreams (Ernest is a busker) ultimately land them on trial.
Two of Ernest & Celestine’s three directors, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, previously made the certifiably insane stop-motion comedy A Town Called Panic, which is enormous fun until it prematurely runs out of steam. This film, too, eventually comes to feel as if it’s stretching itself to get to feature length; the fact that it’s centered upon a tender relationship, however, rather than just moving from one wacky bit to the next, makes its occasional flabby stretches easier to forgive. Plus, most of its delights exist in the margins, from the details of the mice’s dental practice (which, among other things, involves them functioning as this world’s equivalent of tooth fairies) to the gently undulating watercolor backgrounds that replicate the look of Vincent’s simple but lovely illustrations. Once upon a time, a movie like this would have seemed a minor pleasure, enjoyable, but unremarkable. Today, it looks more like a treasure.