The snow falls on the cobblestone street like tiny bread crumbs, a sight so delicate it feels as if it was breathed into existence. It doesn’t take long for Ernest and Celestine, the French import that became this year’s surprise Oscar nominee for animated feature, to evoke the musty, lovingly illustrated Golden Books this reviewer – and, I suspect, quite a few of my readers – favored as a temporary escape from the doldrums of grade-school duties.
For 80 painstakingly hand-drawn minutes, directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier take you to a picturesque town where bears and mice don’t mix because, well, that’s the way things are. (Can you say Babe?) Everyone knows those hibernating beasts are only good for one thing: their teeth, a hot commodity in the mice’s subterranean society. Success is measured by the amount of teeth you can pilfer from, say, cubs who place their baby molars and incisors under the pillow, a playful subversion of the Tooth Fairy. The message is clear for willful, artistically inclined Celestine: Conform, follow the status quo, and you’ll be considered an upstanding member of this rodent clan.
In what appears to be an orphanage dormitory – though it’s never spelled out – Celestine draws while her buck-toothed nanny rails against those hirsute boogeymen on the surface. Her peers gasp at the creepy shadow figures the toothy crone makes on the wall, but that just fuels Celestine’s imagination more. In an expertly rendered sequence, the young mouse is caught by a bourgeois bear family in their cub’s bedroom. She barely escapes from the terrified parents, but winds up stuck inside a trash can outside the home.
Enter ruff-around-the-edges Ernest, reduced to disturbing the peace on the town square as a truly atrocious one-man-band to scrounge up some money. The slovenly slacker is broke and hungry, barely a step ahead from the long, furry arm of the law, polar bears in this case. He opens the rubbish bin, and there’s the smelly morsel, fast asleep and completely unaware she’s about to become lunch. Celestine’s having none of it, of course, and thus a wary partnership based on you-wash-my-back-I’ll-wash-yours opportunism is born. The cheeky pipsqueak tells Ernest how he can get his paws on the sweets from the local candy store, and the burly oaf repays the favor by giving her access to the bear tooth mother lode. And yes, that does mean engaging in illegal activity for which neither party feels the slightest bit of remorse. It’s highly unlikely Beatrix Potter could have conjured up this scenario.
The imagery is pastoral; tranquil watercolor tableaux peppered by more cartoonish, pencil-and-paper character movements. The story content, however, is anything but your standard kiddie fare. Faithfully adapting Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent’s storybook series for the screen, screenwriter Daniel Pennac creates segregated societies driven by mutual fear and distrust, giving this otherwise sweet fable an edge that should resonate with more grown-up viewers. The creative team develops the film’s central relationship with a tart irreverence that prevents the movie from ever feeling – here comes the dreaded word – cute. It’s a term that’s been used by some of my peers who have either just seen the film or said they’re interested in seeing it but will probably not make the effort to do so in a theater. “Cute” in this context is meant as a compliment, but it’s the kind of backhanded dismissal that fails to convey the multiple levels at which the film operates. It pigeonholes a film that’s notably adept at shunning such facile descriptions.
A more traditional narrative would ensure to wag its finger at the target audience, proclaiming loud and clear that stealing is bad and that it brings consequences … but not Ernert and Celestine, which is wise enough to know this odd couple’s Bonnie and Clyde-ish abandon is a direct result from the societal pressures that would put them in such a predicament. That it never feels didactic while conveying this notion is a testament to the irresistible source material and the filmmakers’ skill in dealing with weighty topics while ensuring the film remains lighthearted and effervescent.
The titular malcontents in Ernest and Celestine start off as marginalized rebels. That they’re able to retain their street cred while their friendship continues to blossom makes them pretty badass in my book. It also enables this charmer to sneak in and give your heart a warm squeeze when you least expect it.
This tale of a Gallic mismatched pair is not the only Oscar nominee opening in theaters this weekend. The Missing Picture, the fifth and final Oscar nominee for foreign language feature to open in South Florida, uses a mix of small sculptures, archival footage and voiceover narration to chronicle director Rithy Panh’s first-person account of his adolescence growing up under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge during the 1970s.
On paper, this stylistically intriguing oral history is a corker. Up on the screen, unfortunately, the results are inert, curiously uninvolving. In the ways it uses art to process atrocities, the film recalls fellow Oscar nominee The Act of Killing. While that documentary’s mixture of surreal absurdism and biting social critique ultimately conveys the magnitude of dictatorial savagery and the psychological scars it leaves behind, Picture plays like a static museum exhibit. Panh uses his figures to stage significant life events he witnesses firsthand, but his family’s loss of freedom remains maddeningly abstract.
The Missing Picture is informative, competently executed and resoundingly dull. There’s an air of tasteful respectability that works against the film. Even those haunting photographs of people about to be executed are here flattened into part of Panh’s flavorless landscape. Panh’s omnipresent narration becomes tedious, an incessant drone that robs this nonfiction rumination of its potency.
The Missing Picture opens April 11 at the Tower Theater. That same day, Ernest and Celestine burrows its way into your heart at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Showings will alternate between the original French version with English subtitles, which is the way it was screened for the press, and an English dub featuring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall and Paul Giamatti.