By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 29, 2014)
The “odd couple” meme has become a staple narrative . The reason is obvious; something in our DNA that makes us root for the Mismatched Lovers or the Unlikely Friends to overcome the odds and find their bliss (especially when they’re defying the “rules” ). Who in their heart of hearts (sociopaths aside) wouldn’t want to see the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, dogs and cats living together…or in the case of the animated film Ernest and Celestine, a street-busking bear adopting a ‘lil orphaned mouse?
Co-directed by Stephan Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, and adapted by screenwriter Daniel Pennac from the children’s book by Gabrielle Vincent, the film is set in a fairy tale universe where anthropomorphic bears and mice live in segregated cities above and below ground, respectively.
Woe to the mouse that gets spotted above ground or to the bear caught wandering below. Fear of the “other” is systemically ingrained in the mice, as evidenced by the Grimm’s Fairy Tale-like opening scene, where young Celestine (Pauline Brunner ) and her fellow orphans have the hell scared out of them by their mean-spirited matron (Anne-Marie Loop).
She’s telling them a bedtime story about the “Big Bad Bear”, whom they should never, ever approach, because he has an appetite for anything that moves…especially young mice (“Alive and kicking, with their little coats and backpacks!” she exhorts). “How can you be sure he’s so bad?” ventures Celestine, who gets admonished for heresy.
The bears, on the other hand, assign the mice a more benign archetypal role in their bedtime tales, telling their kids it’s the “Mouse Fairy” who leaves the coins under the pillow whenever they lose a tooth. Of course, if they actually see a real mouse, their first impulse is to jump up on a chair or to grab a blunt object.
That’s what Celestine discovers one evening whilst tiptoeing around a bear family’s home, looking, in fact, to steal a young cub’s tooth from under his pillow (an assignment from her dentistry school instructor; whittled down bear’s teeth make perfect replacement molars for mice…who knew?).
Fleeing for her life, she ends up hiding in a garbage can, in which she becomes trapped overnight. In the morning, she’s discovered by a bear named Ernest (Lambert Wilson), a hungry street musician scrounging for food. The fast-thinking Celestine talks Ernest out of turning her into breakfast by giving him a hot tip about a place she knows where he can find some good eats-the storage cellar of a nearby candy store.
Ernest returns the favor by helping Celestine break into a bear dentist’s stash of teeth. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, about to be challenged by the fears and prejudices of their respective societies (and the “authorities”).
It’s a simplistic fable about tolerance and empathy, but beautifully told. The animation, with its hand-drawn aesthetic and comforting palette of soft pastels, recalls the illustrations of Ludwig Bemelmans (creator of the “Madeline” books I read as a kid). Funny, touching, and charming to a fault, the film, while primarily aimed at children, has wry, offbeat touches that adults should appreciate as well.
Interestingly, I was strongly reminded of Fred Coe’s 1965 dramedy, A Thousand Clowns. In that film, Jason Robards plays a happily unemployed free spirit named Murray (not unlike Ernest) who has likewise taken on a young ward (his nephew). Murray encourages his nephew to flout society’s conventions, especially when it comes to the concept of “finding a career” (Ernest encourages Celestine, an aspiring painter, to forget about dentistry and express herself through art).
However, Murray soon finds himself at odds with the Child Welfare Board, who challenges his competence as a guardian (Ernest and Celestine are each brought up before a judge, ostensibly for their “crimes”, but are really on trial for being non-conformists). On one level, Ernest and Celestine is a fairy tale for kids, but can also be seen as license to follow your bliss. And that is a good thing.