Taboo friendship is one of the many resonant themes in the sweetly strange and delicately animated “Ernest & Celestine,” which is up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and is co-directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner. The French film is based on a series of twenty children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, which follows the ongoing adventures of a bear and mouse, illustrating both literally and figuratively that odd couples can endure over time.
Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner in the French version; Mackenzie Foy in the American dubbed version) is a young mouse with aspirations of being an artist, but forced into dental school. (The head mouse at the dental office where she studies waxes poetic on the importance of the incisor to the greater mouse civilization.) The best way to procure extra incisors for beleaguered mice missing teeth is for the students to steal them from under the pillows of sleeping young bears who await the Tooth Fairy in the world above. But this tried-and-true method encouraged by the establishment involves risk.
After Celestine helps a bohemian street-musician bear, named Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson; Forest Whitaker), out of a jam, she requires his services to help her break into a bear dentist's office and loot the place of all its pearly whites. When the cops -- both bear and rodent alike -- discover that Ernest and Celestine are the unlikely and dissimilarly sized duo who committed the crime, the two are forced to hightail it to Ernest’s hermetic cottage in the woods, where they discover they make very pleasant roommates.
“Ernest & Celestine” strikes a fine balance between gentleness and wackiness. The wacky part makes sense -- Belgian animating duo Aubier and Patar are the creators of the brilliantly bizarre television series and subsequent 2009 film “A Town Called Panic.” That film's ebullient randomness mixes well here with the adorably unhinged script by author Daniel Pennac, giving the soft pastel watercolors of "Ernest & Celestine" and the fluffy cuteness of its two main characters an edge of weirdness.
For example, in the film one entrepreneurial bear lays out his shrewd business plan: Own a candy shop on one side of the street, and a dentist's office on the other. Rot bears’ teeth with sugary holes and then send them across the way for dental work! A perfect cycle of moneymaking, and a perfectly strange note that fits right into a film chock-full of such details.
But amid the whimsicality there’s also a message about difference. The bear world and the mouse kingdom are strictly separated -- one is above ground and the other is subterranean, a miniature Paris-like town in the sewer systems. Aging mouse teachers instill in their students myths of Big Bad Bears who eat little mice. Unsurprisingly, when a bear is actually confronted with a mouse, the immediate reaction is “Eek!” as opposed to “Yum!” (Though Ernest is destitute enough upon first discovering Celestine that he considers the second option, an aspect of their burgeoning friendship they eventually chuckle about.)
Really the only thing these animals have to fear is fear itself. Yet there’s also the distinct suggestion that society smothers creative passion out of individuals. All Celestine wants to do is draw, yet she’s forced to collect teeth. Ernest makes so little money as a musician that he’s forced to rob a candy store. Where do these artistic types fit in if they’re not inherently interested in the dental or tooth-decaying businesses?
The answer is the woods, a place removed from cultural norms where a bear and mouse can set up house together. But as earlier films have told us -- think “Badlands” -- two criminals eluding the law can only enjoy the peace of a self-made paradise for so long. Because “Ernest & Celestine” is a movie primarily for children and then adults, it doesn’t have the tragic timbre of Terrence Malick’s equally wacky and gentle debut feature.
Yet children have a way of understanding serious matters, which is why they’ll be delighted but also fascinated by Ernest and Celestine. The fuzzy pair fights for understanding and acceptance, and against the segregated towns of panic that keep them from being who they want to be.
"Ernest & Celestine" hits theaters February 28, via GKIDS.