Ernest and Celestine begins on a breathless note of disorientation: To the amusement of her friends, a young orphan mouse, Celestine, draws a crude childlike sketch as the world around her becomes richly textured and fuller with every stroke of her pencil. Based on a series of Belgian children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, the film evokes an old-fashioned storybook by retaining its source’s hand-drawn aesthetic. The opening moments, and the film’s almost insistent use of traditional animation, briskly define the relationship between the titular characters and the universe they inhabit, where their societal ostracism forges artistic vigor. This approach becomes increasingly self-reflexive, where Celestine appears able to dictate the rich landscape created for the story, and a peaceful existence is eventually carved out on her and Ernest’s own terms.
A children’s fable that centers on social outcasts is far from original, but it’s in the way Ernest & Celestine refuses to characterize its central friendship solely on the grounds of common isolation that becomes its most endearing quality. The film’s world consists of anthropomorphic bears inhabiting the earth above while their natural enemy mice populate the sewers beneath them. Naturally, bear teeth drives the mice’s economy, and Celestine is frequently admonished when she proves herself inept at collecting these crucial assets. Celestine crosses paths with Ernest, a bumbling and lonely bear who busks for chump change, when she helps him with his perpetual hunger and run-ins with police, which sets off an unorthodox friendship.
The notion that these two characters are brought together because of a shared loneliness is only implicit; Celestine and Ernest are both amateur artists of separate disciplines who find comfort operating outside two systems powered by commerce. After meandering sequences detailing the laws of the land are marked by droning exposition, subtle ellipses are employed to eschew moments of Ernest and Celestine formally acquainting one another.
The friends’ rejection of normalcy comes as no surprise as both their communities are defined by ruthless, wealth-procuring schemes. The film shows a young bear whose father and mother own a candy store and tooth store, respectively, and is being groomed to inherit both businesses. The candies cause teeth to fall out, thus creating more customers to find replacement teeth, and likewise the young bear is forbidden from indulging in simple childhood pleasures like sweets. The mice world is similarly run by rigid economic codes, and the film uses this and other correlations to exhilarating effect by implementing inspired match cuts and sight gags.
The film concludes in a maelstrom of terror, a tactic familiar from many classic Disney animated classics that creepily hints at a potentially dispiriting end to Ernest and Celestine’s unconventional friendship. It’s no spoiler to say that the mouse and bear close the film with an embrace, but after the rousing set pieces that threatened to keep them apart are over, it’s a surprisingly subdued moment. In a nod to the film’s bracing opening, the two friends are alone on a blank white canvas, finally achieving the peace they’ve long sought.