Is it just me or has the quality of animated films taken a significant dip since 2010? Nothing could quite match up to the films of 2009 (Pixar’s Up, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Laika Entertainment’s Coraline, and Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max) though 2010 had its fair share of strong titles (Pixar’s Toy Story 3 , Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, and Sylvain Chomet’s brilliant The Illusionist). But since then, only about one animated film a year is worth championing, though it’s tough to make the case that they belong among the finest of their craft (2011’s Rango and 2012’s Paranorman). As audiences embrace manic and sloppy animated films like Frozen and The Lego Movie, I look to the smaller studios to provide more meditative and emotionally-astute work. Ernest & Célestine, one of the five nominees for Best Animated film at this year’s Academy Awards, remedies some of the grating qualities found in many recent animated films, though eventually gets bogged down in conventionality.
The film plays like an echo chamber following a recent viewing of The Lego Movie, at least in the rhetoric it chooses to deploy. Telling the story of a mouse named Célestine and a bear named Ernest, the film emphasizes the need to evoke one’s uniqueness in the face of conformity. The two creatures are part of social structures that impose a heavy sense of docility, where Célestine’s role is to acquire teeth from the privileged bear class (think tooth fairy here). Célestine, a daydreaming artist, isn’t too keen on her society’s nasty depiction of bears and their presumed sense of privilege - the elder members of her caste denounce the very notion that a bear and mouse could possibly get along. Meanwhile, the crunchier Ernest lives a starving muscian life, playing for tips and generally eking by while scoffing at his culture’s emphasis on acquiring wealth. As Ernest and Célestine eventually meet, their relationship is a breach of the social contract drawn up by the two societies, though their artistic proclivities allow each animal the opportunity to develop as an artist and remedy some of their own underpinned loneliness.
The sensitivity and visual design to Ernest & Célestine are among its highlights, even as its narrative and thematic concerns lack a real sense of urgency. To its benefit, the picture certainly develops in a much more delicate and cogent way than the aforementioned Lego Movie, though its messy conclusion sees it fall through much of the pitfalls of contemporary animated films: delicacy eventually gives way to manic energy. A tonal shift would be forgivable but it’s difficult to reconcile the more deliberate and childish early portions as well. It’s the middle of the picture that sees Ernest and Célestine work together, painter and musician, developing in their own way that gives Ernest & Célestine some a true measure of creative nuance. Here, restricted to a singular locale, the sense of artists coming together to rejoice and develop in their craft is something that I was immediately drawn to. But the heavier, more plot-y points of Ernest & Célestine upend much of that promise.