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Ernest and Celestine is a charming animated film. It’s kid-friendly, but not too sweet, and not too saccharine.

Bears and Mice

Ernest is an artist unappreciated in his time
Ernest is an artist unappreciated in his time

Ernest and Celestine is a world of bears and mice. The mouse children who live in the orphanage (or is it merely a dormitory?) are told the story every night of the big bad bear who, after waking from a long hibernation, likes to eat mice — especially naughty ones. Meanwhile, up above in the city, bears tell their children sweet stories of the tooth fairy — a mouse who comes and takes their baby teeth and leaves a quarter in its place.

Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy in the English-language version) is a fearless girl mouse who draws pictures of bears and mice being best friends, which makes her an outcast. She’d rather draw pictures than work, which for mice means foraging up in the city (and yes, they do forage for bear teeth; you’ll have to watch to learn why).

Ernest (Forest Whitaker) is a starving musician bear. He tries to sing for his supper on the streets of the city, but those philistines don’t know good music when they hear it. In this, he’s an outcast too.

They meet on the streets of the bear city. True to the stories, Ernest would have eaten Celestine — not because she was naughty but because he was starving. She convinces him to let her go. In return she shows him how to sneak into the cellar of the candy store (“Le Roi du Sucre”).

Act Naturally

This Oscar-nominated, 80-minute film is directed by the team of St├ęphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner. It’s based on books by Gabrielle Vincent. The movie feels like it is based on books — plural. As one episode plays out, it segues into another episode later in their lives. Each episode introduces something new — a new setting, or a new character. Later episodes involve the mouse dentist, the visit to Ernest’s house in the woods, all ending in two courtroom trials, one for each friend who dared to reach out across the species line.

The characters are confident, well defined, and all the more endearing in their flaws for being so. Nobody is smart enough to be evil or mean in Ernest and Celestine. They’re just doing what comes naturally. In the first episode, the papa bear who owns the sweet shop is married to the mama bear who is the town dentist. They gleefully admit to their conspiracy, not because they are evil but because it keeps them both in work. After telling their son of the adorable tooth fairy mouse, they spot an actual mouse they become screaming, panicky, vermin-phobes.

Their son wishes he could go along with all the other kids in town and eat lunch from papa’s candy store, but he’s not allowed. This is the son who negotiates for two quarters from the tooth fairy instead of just one.

More than Watercolor

The animation in Ernest and Celestine is excellent. There is a watercolor look to every individual frame the belies the sophistication of the animation. For example, in wide shots, when the mice move, they look like real mice, and not cartoons. When Ernest and Celestine are hiding out, waiting for spring, they propose an artistic duet. Celestine will draw “winter” and Ernest will play it on his violin. Celestine’s paper becomes the movie screen. What follows is a work of art, composed of Celestine’s drawings, Ernest’s music, the fantasies of the animators. Before it can get tiresome, the animation morphs into reality again, and we have our segue from Winter to Spring. Beautiful.

Only toward the end does a little saccharine seep through when the message of acceptance rears its head. Perhaps if this is your children’s first film, they won’t roll their eyes.

Ernest and Celestine lost the Oscar to Frozen. I’d have given it to Hayao Miyazaki for The Wind Rises. But neither of those films is half as charming as Ernest and Celestine.