**1/2 (out of four)
Earlier this year “The Lego Movie” reminded moviegoers that animated movies can be totally awesome, and it was much needed: The form has fallen into such a rut that Pixar (“Monsters University”) not only doesn’t win the Oscar anymore, it’s not even nominated.
One of this year’s best animated feature nominees (which inevitably lost to the just-OK “Frozen”) was the French/Belgian “Ernest and Celestine,” which gets the English language treatment thanks to Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy (“The Conjuring”), Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. It wouldn’t have been tough for the movie to be the best in a category that also contained “The Croods,” “Despicable Me 2” and Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely but boring “The Wind Rises.” Yet despite its hand-drawn charms, “Ernest and Celestine” is a small tale that struggles to sustain itself for even 74 minutes. It sets up a premise, pops in a couple of sweet moments and hits cruise control. It’s never as cute as it wants to be.
Foy voices Celestine, a mouse who refuses to buy into the societal rule that bears and mice can’t be friends. (This society contains only bears, who live on the surface, and mice, who live below ground.) Ernest (Whitaker), a bear who performs as a one-man band, hasn’t really thought about the divide; he’s just hungry. So when he finds Celestine in a garbage can, he’s fixin’ to feast until the little critter tells him bears only eat mice in fairy tales. Soon she helps him find candy, and he helps her gather teeth (don’t ask). And a beautiful friendship is born.
Based on a book by Gabrielle Vincent and also featuring the voices of William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti, “Ernest and Celestine” returns to the territory of “Monsters, Inc.” and “ParaNorman” in depicting beliefs perpetuated solely out of habit. And “E+C” goes no further, omitting the smallest details about this world, leaving viewers with time to kill and wondering why the cops refer to Ernest and Celestine only by their first names.
That’d be asking too much from this simple movie, which does generate smiles in little bits like mice bench-pressing the metal bar of a mousetrap and the tiny bed that Celestine’s stuffed duck sleeps in. If only we could have spent additional time with George (Offerman), who owns the candy shop, and his wife, Lucienne (Mullally), who replaces rotted teeth. “Ernest and Celestine” needs five more doses of that strategic ingenuity.
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