In a word, scale is what gives "Ernest and Celestine" such gentle charm. Ernest is a big, burly bear. Celestine is a tiny, cheery mouse. The contrast in their sizes — he could pop her into his mouth as an appetizer — only adds to the appeal of their endearing, opposites-attract friendship.
This wistful, beautifully animated film, based on a series of children's books by Belgian writer and artist Gabrielle Vincent, hovers pleasantly between two categories in the animation genre. It is not an assertively adult film, but neither is it a strictly juvenile or "family friendly" offering. It glows with a childlike innocence but never grinds into the sticky-slapstick sentiment that marks so much of today's coldly calculated animated family offerings.
"Ernest and Celestine" played to acclaim at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals but was only seen on the big screen in a limited number of markets. The Fresno Filmworks presentation screens today only at the Tower Theatre.
In Ernest's and Celestine's world, the mice scamper through an impressive civilization of tunnels beneath the streets of a great metropolis, while the bears stomp through the world above.
Needless to say, there isn't a lot of mixing between the two species. The closest regular contact seems to be when the mice, who covet bear teeth as the ideal mouse dentures, do anything they can to get their hands on discarded bear molars. (There's even a play on the traditional tooth fairy motif: In this world, bear children leave their baby teeth in exchange for a coin from the "mouse fairy.")
Celestine, a plucky orphan (brightly voiced in the English language version of the film by Mackenzie Foy), comes up with an ingenious way of getting those bear teeth in bulk. But a setback puts her directly in the path of Ernest (Forest Whitaker), a growly underachiever. They make for unlikely pals, but the mismatched-friends theme has always been a staple of children's literature.
Directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner build the film's storyline on the various books in the "Ernest and Celestine" series, and while the narrative isn't riveting, it's very sweet. (There are some memorable visuals, including a swarm of mouse police detectives that flows like a tidal wave.) It mostly gives us an opportunity to watch the friendship develop, then to see each character thrust unexpectedly into the other's world.
At one point, the tiny mouse is put on trial in a cavernous courtroom in the city above while the big bear is squeezed into a cramped courtroom directly below. When it comes to scale, though, all the hearts in "Ernest and Celestine" are big.
"Ernest and Celestine," rated PG. Stars the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall and William H. Macy. Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner. Running time: 80 minutes. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: B+