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‘Ernest’ offers mix of whimsy, wit It’s a subtle creation

LOS ANGELES, March 2, (Agencies): Computers have become capable of infinite wonders when it comes to animated movies, but every so often it’s nice to get a “Lilo and Stitch” or a “Spirited Away” (which employed partial CG) or a “Triplets of Belleville” to remind us of the depth and richness of more traditional cartoons. Characters soaring over landscapes in 3-D can be a blast, don’t get me wrong, but there are other pleasures to be found from the medium. The delicate watercolors are just one of the elements that make the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine” such a delight. The tale of an unlikely friendship between a big, hungry bear and a small, talented mouse, this French import plays out like the kind of picture book that you love as a child and still treasure as an adult. It’s a subtle creation, offering the perfect mix of whimsy for kids and wit for grown-ups. The film is set in a world where bears dominate above the ground while mice are relegated to the sewers below, and both sets of creatures are thoroughly suspicious of each other; bears think that mice are disease-ridden devourers, while the mice are told bedtime stories with a moral to beware the evil bears who want to gobble you up.

When ursine street-musician Ernest (voiced by Forest Whitaker in the English-language version) first crosses paths with young Celestine (Mackenzie Foy, who played Renesmee in the final two “Twilight” films), he’s a very hungry predator while she has been sent out to gather up bear teeth as part of her internship. (The French version of the tooth fairy is a mouse, and “Ernest & Celestine” plays on that mythos to create an entire industry involving rodent dentistry.) He wants to gobble her up, but she shrewdly helps him break into the candy store owned by George (Nick Offerman), who sells sweets to children so that they will eventually need to buy replacement teeth at the store across the street owned by his wife, Lucienne (Megan Mullally).

As Ernest and Celestine begin helping each other out, they discover they’re kindred spirits - Ernest became a musician over the protests of his family, who wanted him to be a judge like his father and grandfather before him, while Celestine would much rather be an artist than a dentist. But when their species are sworn enemies, can these two friends find a place to be together?
The English-language cast is generally on par with the French one; Whitaker captures both the gruff exterior and the well-hidden mushy center of Ernest just perfectly, although Lauren Bacall, while entertaining, doesn’t quite reach the heights of Anne-Marie Loop as Celestine’s stentorian headmistress. Offerman and Mullally, who have pepped up any number of indie comedies of late, have fun with the material, while William H. Macy (as a dictatorial dentist) seems to be channeling James Urbaniak’s nerdy scientist character from Adult Swim’s “The Venture Bros.”

Daniel Pennac’s screenplay, based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent, has a lot to say about pursuing your dreams and not buying into societal prejudices, but it delivers those ideas with grace, never throwing Lego bricks at your head to get across its point.
Not having read Vincent’s book, I can’t say what innovations are hers and which ones come from directors St­©phane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, but “Ernest & Celestine” provides one visual treat after another, whether it’s the underground (but unmistakably French) mouse village or the surging wave formed by thousands of tiny gendarmes.
I don’t want to make “Ernest & Celestine” sound too twee - it’s got pratfalls and chase scenes and funny banter. But it also builds to a climax that’s genuinely moving and sweet. Treat your kids - and yourself - to a film that doesn’t loan itself to sequels or fast-food tie-ins but that will nonetheless stay with you and become the kind of experience you’ll want to pass along. Like a great picture book.

With Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” preparing to duke it out for Old Testament auteur supremacy, Hollywood’s religious renaissance gets off to a none-too-spectacular start with a chewed-over New Testament appetizer called “Son of ….” A clumsily edited feature-length version of five episodes from History’s hugely popular 10-hour miniseries “The Bible,” this stiff, earnest production plays like a half-hearted throwback to the British-accented biblical dramas of yesteryear, its small-screen genesis all too apparent in its Swiss-cheese construction and subpar production values. Yet while Jesus’ teachings have been reduced to a muddle of kindly gestures and mangled Scriptures, the scenes of his betrayal, death and resurrection crucially retain their emotional and dramatic power, which the charitable viewer may deem atonement enough for what feels, in all other respects, like a cynical cash grab.

As the first quasi-big screen account of the life of Jesus in the decade since Mel Gibson’s far more contentious “The Passion of the Christ,” “Son of …” should capitalize sufficiently on church-based word of mouth to intrigue if not galvanize Christian moviegoers.
Although some scholars have taken issue with the series’ deviations from the Bible, the film arrives in theaters bearing pre-packaged endorsements by such prominent spiritual leaders as Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes and Sam Rodriguez — some of whom served as advisers to the TV project spearheaded by husband-and-wife exec producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who retain their producing credits here, as does co-writer Richard Bedser).
“In the beginning was the Word,” the gospel writer John (Sebastian Knapp) intones early on, his revelation in the miniseries having been repurposed as a framing device here.
Gone are the formative elements of Jesus’ upbringing and his temptation in the wilderness, reportedly due to complaints that Satan (as played in the miniseries by actor Mehdi Ouazzani) bore a suspicious resemblance to President Obama. The story proper begins as Jesus (handsome, sleepy-eyed Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado) calls forth his disciples at the Sea of Galilee and begins his compassionate ministry of teaching, healing and prayer.
And so, in fairly rapid succession, Jesus restores a paralytic, feeds the 5,000, and walks on water in a stormy sequence that suggests a relic from the Cecil B. DeMille era. In this abbreviated, arbitrary approach to biblical interpretation, the greatest story ever told becomes a checklist of miracles, and Jesus’ words and deeds, far from carrying the shock of radical epiphany, feel obvious and preordained. Time, or at least running time, is clearly of the essence: Miracles and lessons are expediently juxtaposed, and the Sermon on the Mount plays more like the Sermon on the Montage. Although he occasionally pauses to speak in parables, this Jesus is not above getting right to the point for the benefit of a busy 21st-century audience.

Elsewhere, schlock aesthetics prevail: When the sneering Pharisees attempt — and fail — to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, their stones fall to the ground in slow-motion, each one landing with a Dolby-amplified thud. While we are clearly a long way from the raw austerity of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” or the rigorous integrity of Philip Saville’s word-for-word 2003 adaptation of “The Gospel of John,” a cinematic adaptation of Scripture nonetheless demands style, poetry, vision or, barring that, a point of view — none of which seems to have been part of the assignment handed to directors Christopher Spencer (who helmed the three episodes from which the pic is chiefly drawn), Tony Mitchell and Crispin Reece.
“Son of …,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense and bloody depiction of The Crucifixion, and for some sequences of violence.” Running time: 138 minutes.

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