I’m not sure if this is embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t have any fascination with live-action media until the age of twelve or so. Until that point, outside a very rare screening of Spider-Man in theaters (I think?), I only cared about cartoons. (This included anime; I just didn’t care to distinguish them.) What company was the best at producing animated films at this time? And still continues to be the primary source? Disney.
My current age is 28. The youthful days of a preference for animation over live-action has significantly dissipated. Not to imply that I don’t care for animation anymore, only that I’m more than willing to watch real people in stories. Still, it’s always nice to veer back into the medium that I used to absorb so heavily. And looking at the cover image for Ernest & Celestine—a film I had never heard of prior to today—I was reminded of those days yet again.
Mostly Copy-Pasted Synopsis
“The story of an unlikely friendship between a bear, Ernest, and a young mouse named Celestine.” – IMDb
(This synopsis doesn’t really tell much of the actual events present in this film. Their relationship is the core to the film, though there’s also a community divided. Bears live above ground, mice live underneath. These two species have been taught for generations to despise one another, which is why the relationship between the two leads is “unlikely.”)
When you search “Best animated films” on Google, what are you likely to find? Top 50-100 lists containing Disney and Pixar films as a large majority. I even came upon a list that named Snow White as the greatest animated film of all time… which had me scratching my head. Personally, I believe historical significance is an incredibly overrated factor to consider in one’s “greatness.”
Snow White was Disney’s first animated feature-length film. It created the formula… doesn’t matter to me. Who perfected the formula? This ties into the intriguing charm of today’s film.
Upon finishing Ernest & Celestine, my brother rather cheerfully asked for my opinion. Aside from referencing a specific meme, I called the “plot structure” “cliché,” lamenting that I may as well have watched any animated film ever.
Two people meet under tumultuous circumstances. After a chance encounter of mutual benefit to one another, they end up relying on one another even more, up until the point where the become inseparable. Unfortunately for them, The Conflict™ must rear itself and tear them apart, only to end on an emotional high when they’re finally reunited.
What animated film did I just describe? Hell, what film, period, did I just describe? While certainly not an end-all be-all, simply take the description I wrote above and edit it in any way that deems your story successful. It’s a formula, a successful one at that. There’s a reason it’s used continuously throughout time—because it works. You can either choose to ignore how easy it is to replicate this or be a cynical curmudgeon (like me) and dock points because you’ve seen it countless times before.
Still, I cannot be too harsh on the outline when the finer details are all that they need to be. Other animated films nowadays, at least to me, feel as though they need to add a lot of different hooks to them—a twist, an extravagant setting, fantasy and/or magic, self-aware writing that ends up distracting. One of this film’s strengths is that it holds to that simplicity of a basic setting, basic premise, and basic execution. All the more charming because of it.
Hit the Sweet Spot
A lot of other reviews I’ve read after the fact call Ernest & Celestine “cute” or “charming” or “precious,” along with other similar superlatives. I’m here to confirm that these are all very true.
Yes, the plot structure is cliché. Yes, the characters and conflict are fairly straightforward. What the writing manages to convey is a sense of wonder, of togetherness, of wholesome values that other films fail to achieve when all is said and done.
Ernest and Celestine behave as normal people, both with each other and themselves. They have dreams and ambitions that are hampered by the pressure of their families or culture. Initially, they’re self-reliant, using one another for personal gain until they come to understand their similarities. This leads to a rise in selflessness, which is what a sizeable portion of this film is dedicated to showcasing. Ernest and Celestine eventually favor the other’s needs over their own.
“Wait, this doesn’t sound any different than what other animated films do,” you may be thinking. And you’re right, this is pretty much standard territory. What’s different here is the execution.
If I could describe the “vibe” of Ernest & Celestine, I would compare to something like Winnie the Pooh or Peanuts. There isn’t much going on in the background, outside of some obvious messages of destroying prejudices and maybe some critique on authoritative societies. Other stories tend to emphasize a “Not the destination, but the journey” mantra; here, there isn’t really a “journey.” It isn’t larger than life or extraordinary. These events are grounded and ordinary, which make them more personal. This could happen to anyone.
Which is why, by the end, I could truly grasp the love the two leads had for one another.
Some Animated Amusement
Of course, an animated work would be next to nothing if its animation wasn’t stellar. Hand-drawn animation is meticulous work that oozes with charm and personality, never truly the same no matter the hand bringing it to life. Again, Winnie the Pooh comes to mind, though there’s a distinct difference to it. A lightness like mist, almost. The way characters (particularly bears) smile wide almost reminds me of old-school anime. A particular distinction shows, along with some variety.
In line with the simplicity I praised, the individual themes on display are all the more engrossing because they only focus on the most important aspects. The ferocity of shameful propaganda; the pleasure of consuming candy; the joy in being near those you love. Whether energetic or emotional, there’s a lot of engaging displays of animated finesse that keeps the eyes looking for fun details. A little choppy during slow bits, but it’s easily ignored.
Counting only animated films, this is now among my favorites, and the best I’ve seen in a years. Counting every film I’ve ever seen, it remains a pleasurable addition to my mental database. It’s absolutely adorable. Discounting how formulaic it is upon dissection, Ernest & Celestine manages to evoke the emotional, wholesome relationship between two unlike beings to maximum effect. I literally almost audibly “Awww’d” in the penultimate scene.
Final Score: 8/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.