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Film Review: 'Ernest & Célestine'

★★★★☆
Our love of traditional and vintage styles, both of which have slowly come back into mainstream fashion today, has become something of a mini revolution in recent times. Clothes, food and music have gone full circle to confirm how history reintroduces itself to modern life, and proves how we long for homeliness and real value in a tech-focused culture. Particularly, it has been easy to get caught up in the excitement and hype of 3D and CGI - areas of cinema being steadily conquered by digital giant Pixar. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's Ernest & Célestine (2012) is thus brave to venture back into hand-drawn animation.

Ernest & Célestine is based on the children's stories of Gabrielle Vincent about a mouse and a bear (and ne'er the twain shall meet). Above ground, the bears go about their daily business; Ernest is an impoverished recluse, living in a rundown cottage on the outskirts of the town, scraping by with his one-man-band and the occasional petty theft or two. Meanwhile, Célestine lives in the depths of the sewers, her fellow mice operating a vast metropolis-style city which they have built over the years. Scared with tales of vengeful bears, the mice are kept underground, only journeying out on dangerous missions to steal bear teeth.

When fitted, the teeth give the mice powers of articulation and expression, qualities which allow them to design the intricacies of their city. Naturally, Célestine discovers that bears such as Ernest are not always terrifying - and the pair strike up an improbable friendship. Though this storyline sounds surreal, it is unfolded with such care, you rarely notice the absurdity. Belgian directors Aubier and Patar, who have carved out successful careers in animation with the likes of A Town Called Panic (2009), join Benjamin Renner to prove how considering the source can pay off. Their decision to use watercolour techniques, in-keeping with the original illustrations, produces a warm and loving adaptation which appeals to the value of faithful cinematography.

The mice and bears are simply animated, similar in approach to the drawings of Quentin Blake whose work always seemed uncompromisingly innocent. Palely coloured but rich with detail, Ernest & Célestine recaptures a magic to animation, told through warm-hearted storylines and interesting characters. It is also scored with equally appropriate tunes; French horns and flutes give energy and tone to the film, pressing on the emotive scenes and lighting up the joyful ones. In this sense, the film actually feels very French; though this might sound like a generalisation, an extra level of identity and character to the animation is shaped, clearly focused on its origins and able to weave attributes from farcical plot lines to quirky bits of Franco humour.

Ernest & Célestine slipped under the radars of many at this year's London Film Festival, perhaps having been simplistically placed in the 'Family' section, but it is one to celebrate. It is testament to the extensive power of children's literature, the warmth of storybook illustration and how the big screen can aid them.

Ernest & Célestine is released in French cinemas on 12 December, 2012. A UK release courtesy of StudioCanal is scheduled for 2013.

Andrew Latimer

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