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Deep below snowy cobblestone streets, tucked away in networks of winding tunnels, lives a tiny mouse named Celestine. Unlike her fellow mice, Celestine is an artist and a dreamer, and has a hard time fitting in. When she nearly ends up as breakfast for a grumpy bear named Ernest, the two become fast friends and embark on an adventure that will put a smile on your face and make your heart glow. (From GKIDS’ official synopsis)

 Ernest & Celestine
Thanks in large part to the success of Pixar’s ‘golden age,’ Hollywood studios have turned to expensively rendered CG and familiar, proven concepts for their animation output. With the exception of a handful of stop-motion efforts, complex conflicts are ignored in favour of action spectacle and pop-culture jokes. This isn’t to say that Hollywood animation has been completely compromised or that it isn’t any good, but even the best studio output is crippled by the need for family-friendly mass appeal. Simply stated, these movies are too expensive to take any major chances, which is why small miracles, like Ratatouille and Up, are so important. While Hollywood struggles, other countries have shrugged off to the myth that animated features need to appeal to the broadest possible audiences. Besides Japan, who is already well known for diversity in their animated output, French & Belgian filmmakers are producing the most artistically unique and thematically challenging format releases. The region has a documented history with animation, beginning with the Asterix and Tintin movie series and René Laloux’s sci-fi classic, Fantastic Planet (1973). More recently, French/Belgian animators and filmmakers have found inspiration in demanding and unusual subject matter, including the complex politics of Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud’s coming-of-age autobiography Persepolis (2007) and Joann Sfar & Antoine Delesvaux’s The Rabbi’s Cat, La Nouvelle Vague influences of Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010), and the Celtic inspirations of Sylvain Chomet’s The Secret of Kells (2009).

The latest French/Belgium feature to battle for the Best Animated Feature Oscar and lose to a big-budget American production (in this case, Frozen) is Ernest & Celestine. This more simplified and sweet-natured film does not attempt to match the ‘mature’ aspirations of the regions other, more recently celebrated animated movies. It’s aimed at a much younger audience than the likes of Persepolis or The Rabbi’s Cat, but nonetheless challenges its audience with an unusual animation style and imaginative story. Working from Gabrielle Vincent’s popular illustrated books, screenwriter Daniel Pennac’s simmers down years of short-form storytelling into a concrete narrative and builds character dynamics around common cartoon and fairytale tropes (orphan lifestyles, societal segregation, and creatures that make friends despite belonging to warring sects/families/species). The best comparison, in terms of tone and narrative expression, would probably be Disney’s Winnie the Pooh movies.

 Ernest & Celestine
Ernest & Celestine was directed by a trio of filmmakers – Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner. Renner, who is, for all intents and purposes, the lead director, was handed the reins after he made a super-stylized, award-winning short called A Mouse’s Tale (2008, it can be seen here). Aubier and Patar were brought on to help, following their success on Pic Pic André Shoow television shorts and the incredibly buoyant stop-motion masterpiece A Town Called Panic (2009), which helps inform Ernest & Celestine’s overall comedic tone. The minimalist, watercolor-based animation style, which was achieved via computers and is based loosely on the illustrations that appeared in the original books, offers the animators the opportunity to tell their story with soothingly surrealistic images. As the film advances, they begin to take chances. These include nightmare sequences, subjective imagery (ex. a storm cloud becomes an angry bear cop when seen through Ernest’s eyes), and an abstract visual representation of music that would be at home in Fantasia. All intellectual reasoning aside, Ernest & Celestine is just downright adorable. The kid-friendly atmosphere of A Town Called Panic was also aimed at children, but was, as the title implies, a bit more manic in terms of its comedy. This time, directors occasionally rely on Ernest’s exaggerated expressions and clumsy pratfalls for belly laughs, but tend to opt for the subtle giggles and gentle charms you’d see in Winnie the Pooh or even one of Miyazaki’s more kid-friendly movies.

 Ernest & Celestine

Video


Ernest & Celestine is only the second film I’ve reviewed from Cinedigm Entertainment and GKIDS, following Goro Miyazaki’s excellent From Up on Poppy Hill. Between that release, this one, and a number of HD transfers I’ve seen on Netflix streaming, I think that it’s safe to say the two companies are reliable distributors for this kind of stuff. The film’s watercolor style (something that was difficult to achieve, according to the behind-the-scenes features) poses more of a challenge to this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer than the dynamic and sharply-edged From Up On Poppy Hill animation. The only particularly hard edges here are found in the ink and coloured pencil outlines, which are sparingly used to define shapes and create movement. The purposefully runny hues blend and bleed as they would in a still watercolor painting without any real banding issues. The outlines are crisp and the fine texture of the paper (or digitally created faux-paper, as it may be) is incredibly lifelike and consistent, without any notable digital grain. Colour quality is soft, but not at the risk of black and white contrasts.
 
 Ernest & Celestine

Audio


Cinedigm and GKIDS have included both the original French and English dubbed versions here and presented them in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. There is no cut and dry choice between the two tracks – those with kids will definitely want to go with the English dub, while adult viewers will probably prefer the original tracks for the sake of authenticity. I’ve defaulted to the French track myself, but can’t find any major issues with the dub, which seems well-translated and includes the familiar voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, and Jeffrey Wright. This is not a particularly noisy film. The filmmakers depend more on the dynamic ranges between silence and sound, which leaves little room for deeply immersive aural environment. Exceptions include the busy streets of the underground city, the super-busy mouse dentist office, and a sequence where Celestine listens to Ernest’s nightly routine from his cellar. Directional effects are used sparingly, usually for the sake of a laugh or to signify a character moving from one side of the screen to another. Dialogue and heavier effects, like Ernest’s pratfalls, are usually centered. Vincent Courtois’ easygoing musical score has a decent LFE presence and is plenty warm when given full run of the track. The effects and music qualities are identical between the French and English tracks, but the English dialogue is a bit louder and tinny overall.

 Ernest & Celestine

Extras


  • Feature-length animatic version of the film (something Disney and GKIDS have done with Studio Ghibli releases in the past)
  • The Making of Ernest & Celestine (52:00, HD) – A French language documentary that covers the film’s long production process from concept, through writing, layout, design, animation, voice acting, and music. It includes cast and crew interviews and images from Gabrielle Vincent’s books.
  • Interview with director Benjamin Renner (14:00, HD) – An English language interview with one of the film’s directors that covers a lot of the same material as the documentary.
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Trailers for other GKIDS releases


 Ernest & Celestine

Overall


I was utterly charmed by Ernest & Celestine and genuinely hope that this Blu-ray release will help ensure that more folks see it. I’ve got nothing against Disney’s Frozen and understand that its runaway popularity put certain demands on Academy voters, who chose it as their Best Animated Feature, but Ernest & Celestine is so much more interesting to my sensibilities. The image quality here is top-notch, as is the sound quality, despite being limited by a relatively simplified mix. The extras are also better/more informative than expected for a foreign animation release.

 Ernest & Celestine

 Ernest & Celestine

 Ernest & Celestine

 Ernest & Celestine
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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