It's an unlikely friendship, a mouse and a bear, but that bond is at the heart of Ernest & Celestine, the Academy Award-nominated animated feature adapted with wit and grace from Gabrielle Vincent's beloved series of children's books.
On view in both the original French version, with subtitles, and a dubbed iteration - with Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy voicing the leads, and Lauren Bacall (!), Paul Giamatti, and William H. Macy in the credits, too - Ernest & Celestine is the impossibly cute, but never cloying, tale of a plucky little rodent and the lumbering slob of a clawed furry beast she helps out of a jam.
Or, more accurately, helps through the window jamb of a candy shop, where Ernest the bear happily works his way through the inventory.
Ernest & Celestine has been drawn in a style that evokes, more than a bit, the whimsical cartoons of William Steig. Fans of Steig's children's book Doctor De Soto - about a mouse dentist and his run-ins with a dentally distressed fox - will note the parallels with Ernest & Celestine, where dentition again is key. Young mice are encouraged to steal the baby teeth of bear cubs, which are repurposed as incisors in Celestine's world.
It's a world wonderfully realized: subterranean and teeming, with cyclists and gendarmes, houses and storefronts and cafes. But Celestine, who would rather draw in her sketchbook than go off stealing bear teeth, isn't at home in this place, where she lives, Madeline-style, in an orphanage. She's more comfortable curled up in a cozy corner of Ernest's horrifically messy cabin in the woods.
There are challenges to any friendship, and mouse and bear face theirs. The police are on the hunt for Ernest, who went from street-busking to burglary. Celestine is haunted by nightmares, and is being pressured by the dentists, and by the old gray matron who runs the orphanage, to shape up.
In the end, it's the bear and mouse's common humanity, and a spirit of empathy and sympathy, that wins the day. Ernest & Celestine is a genuine charmer for kids, and for the parental units tagging alongside.
Ernest & Celestine ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner. With the voices of Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy (English version); Lambert Wilson and Pauline Brunner (French version). Distributed by Gkids.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (scary images, cute talking animals in jeopardy)
Playing at: Ritz BourseEndText