In the enchanted watercolor universe of “Ernest & Celestine,” the world is divided into mice and bears. The bears live aboveground in a bourgeois French village and the mice live below in a subterranean society. Everyone knows his or her place except for Ernest, bear, and Celestine, mouse. He’s a happily shiftless street performer, the grasshopper to the other bears’, um, ants. She’s a daydreaming artist out of her element in her “Madeline”-style boarding school. Neither fits in with anyone else, so why not with each other?
Based on a children’s book series by the Belgian writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest & Celestine” is a Gallic delight, both a recent Oscar nominee (it lost to “Frozen”) and winner of France’s César for best animated film. It moves with the rhythms and emotions of classic kids’ literature, possesses elegance and belly laughs in equal measure, and is almost magically beautiful to look at. And, like bears, it has bite. You, your 5-year-old, and your hipster teenager will all find something to love here.
That said, choose with care which “Ernest & Celestine” you want to see. The Kendall Square is screening the film both in the original French with subtitles (the version made available for review) and in a dubbed English-language print featuring actors like Forest Whitaker (as Ernest), Lauren Bacall, and Paul Giamatti. The subtitled version is a thing of wonder, but if you don’t want to spend 80 minutes whisper-reading to your little guys, go with the dubbed.
In either case, the film’s an eyeful, with hints of Japanese anime and perhaps a debt to Raymond Briggs’s “The Snowman.” Directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner render the world(s) of “Ernest & Celestine” with delicate washes and pastel colors, the characters outlined with just enough definition to give them weight. Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson in the French version) is clumsy, alarmingly loud, and a real bear when hungry, but he’s capable of genuine tenderness. Celestine (Pauline Brunner in French and Mackenzie Foy in English) is shy but resourceful and ever curious. Both are outsiders able to see through the absurdities of their rigid communities.
In contrast to Hollywood animations, where the visuals are buffed to a computer-generated sheen and the narrative unfolds to predictable story beats, “Ernest & Celestine” has its share of eccentricities. One subplot, about the mice collecting the discarded teeth of young bears to replace their own, is just plain weird. But the characterizations, exuberant slapstick, and clever details combine for an experience as joyful as it is unique. And when Celestine paints a winter landscape and her brush strokes come alive to the strains of Ernest’s violin, you know you’re watching something very special indeed.
There are lessons, but they grow out of the story, rather than the other way around. One is about the difficulty of being true to oneself in a community that claims to know what’s best for everybody. The other is a plea to let friendship and love sprout where they may. In its understated fashion, “Ernest & Celestine” could even be read as a portrait of a mixed marriage, bear and mouse finding contentment in each other’s quirks while the outside world looks on, aghast. Call it animal magnetism, but I know a few human couples like Ernest and Celestine, and I bet your kids do, too.