Imagine if you crossed “Romeo and Juliet” with “Bonnie and Clyde” in a French cartoon starring a penniless bear and a precocious mouse. No, that’s not a kids’ fever dream—that’s an elevator-pitch summary of “Ernest and Celestine,” a refreshingly hand-drawn movie from the other side of the Atlantic.
Although French animation isn’t a hot topic in most households, this particular title might sound vaguely familiar—the result of its surprise but welcome inclusion in the Oscar race this year. (Like all the others in the Best Animated Feature category, it understandably fell to the “Frozen” juggernaut.) It’s now in the city for a two-week run at the Music Box Theatre, but you don’t have to worry about your kids wriggling through subtitles. The Music Box is mostly screening the dubbed version; and thanks to the free-flowing look of the animation, you won’t notice any disconnect with the speech and the characters’ mouths. (Purists can catch it in French at the final screening each day.)
Over the course of the film’s charming 80 minutes, kids will eat up the archaic adventures of the title pair, who live in two close-but-separate worlds: Ernest is part of the bear civilization above ground; Celestine lives in the subterranean mouse kingdom directly below. Parents, meanwhile, will appreciate the message behind the story, which encourages free thinking and directly questions prejudice—bears and mice are taught to fear, even loathe, each other, a status quo that the twin protagonists challenge. Given that Ernest is a musician and Celestine an artist, creativity is also highly valued here.
Under the three-headed direction of Directed by Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, the visuals are produced not by computer (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but by hand, in a mostly muted palette. Meanwhile, the whimsical score, composed by Vincent Courtois, doesn’t rely on a single pop tune. In other words: Inside this animated world, you’re safe from the ubiquity of “Happy” and “Let it Go.”
Although it’s probably suitable for most kids in early grade school, the movie carries a PG rating. There are a few brief sequences that might scare little ones—beginning with the moody opening, when the crone who runs the mouse orphanage (hilariously voiced by Lauren Bacall) tries to scare her young charges with a story about bears.
“Ernest and Celestine” runs through April 17 at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave. (773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com). The English version features the voices of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Megan Mullally and Mackenzie Foy. Tickets are $10, $7 for kids 12 & under; Mondays are $7 for everyone with buy-one-get-one popcorn and soda.
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