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Directors: Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar
Release Date:
May 23, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

In a time in which American studio animation has discarded traditional animation practically altogether, only to embrace a rather generic post-Disney 3D computer style (Laika being the notable exception), one must look elsewhere for animation films in a more unique visual style.

In the 21st century France, especially, has emerged as a producer of animation films with an interesting visual style, using traditional means, with films as different as ‘Les Triplettes de Belleville’ (2003), ‘Persepolis’ (2007), ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010) and ‘Le tableau’ (2011) emerging from that country.

One of such films is ‘Ernest & Célestine’, which immediately draws attention with its gentle, children book-like watercolor style. Produced not only in France, but also in Belgium and Luxembourg, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ is based on a children book series by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent (1928-2000). Vincent’s Ernest & Célestine stories were modest affairs, with the bear and mouse duo singing, picnicking, going to the circus, or celebrating Christmas. But ‘Ernest & Célestine’ the movie is a very different affair, telling a rather Romeo and Juliet-like story of the two heroes bridging two worlds that live in fear of each other. It remains a bit mystifying why producer Didier Brunner didn’t opt for an intimate story, fitting the source material. As such ‘Ernest & Célestine’ could have been a delightfully little film like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988).

Instead, Brunner asked French writer Daniel Pennac for a scenario. Now, Pennac is best known for his social satire. I’ve read his novel ‘The Scapegoat’ from 1985 and his graphic novel ‘La débauche’ (with Jacques Tardi, 2000) and both combine sharp social criticism with great humor. Yet, Pennac’s urban settings seem miles away from Vincent’s nostalgic worlds, and, indeed, the film doesn’t really bridge those.

In fact, the film’s story is its weakest link, as the film doesn’t entirely succeed in both setting this world and introducing both characters before the main story starts. Pennac makes it over-complicated with little mice gathering the teeth from the bear children, an invention completely superfluous to the main plot. Moreover, as soon as Ernest and Célestine meet each other, the latter suddenly turns into a brave, smart-alecky, rather dominating, and talkative character, something we would never have guessed from the earlier scenes.

It doesn’t help that initially neither she nor Ernest come off as very likable. Ernest, for example is introduced as lazy and well-known to the police, and he absolutely sees no problem in breaking in into somebody else’s cellar. Also, his treatment of Célestine is rude, while Célestine comes over as pushy, popping up rather uninvited in Ernest’s home. Only when the two rescue each other from nightmares, they grow towards each other. But this occurs apparently overnight, and the change isn’t entirely convincing.

Worse, when the story finally comes to the subject of Vincent’s books, with scenes of Ernest & Célestine living together, and having fun together, the film enters still water. Likewise, the finale feels forced and fails to convince. Directors Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar (the latter two of ‘A Town Called Panic’ fame) should have known better.

Nevertheless, the film’s message that friendship and understanding can bridge two very different worlds and cultures, is a welcome one, and as said in the intro, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ employs a very pleasant visual style. All background art is painted in watercolors, and the digital coloring of the characters successfully mimics the watercolor style. Moreover, the linework is open, and the edges of the backgrounds dissolve into nothingness, emphasizing the story book feel.

Strikingly, the animation, supervised by Patrick Lambert and done by Les Armateurs and Blue Spirit in France and Studio 352 in Luxembourg, comes across as rather Japanese. Several moves and facial expressions are copied directly from Japanese tropes and are at odds with the European visual style. Indeed, the film makers admit being highly influenced by Ghibli, but unfortunately, story-wise, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ doesn’t reach the Japanese studio’s great heights. This is a pity, for now ‘Ernest & Célestine’ remains a film which is extremely pleasant to look at, but which is also highly frustrating to watch, with its rambling plot, and plodding pace.

Watch the US trailer for ‘Ernest & Célestine’ and tell me what you think:

‘Ernest & Célestine’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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