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This image released by Studiocanal shows a scene from the film, ‘Ernest and Celestine’. (AP)
‘Ernest & Celestine’ delicate delight ‘Cuteness is almost unbearable’

The delicate and lovingly hand-made “Ernest & Celestine” captures the whimsy and warmth of a dearly felt children’s picture book like few movies before. The Oscar-nominated animated French-Belgian film is a simply rendered tale about a friendship between a mouse and a bear, painted with watercolor backgrounds and hand-sketched characters. In a movie landscape crowded with awesome digital animations and forgettable big-budget cartoon blockbusters, “Ernest & Celestine” is a humble oasis of gentle and inventive storytelling.
Though the film lost out to Disney’s mighty “Frozen” at the Academy Awards, children and adults will be thrilled by this meek underdog, which is being released both in its original French and an English redubbing voiced by Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti and child actress Mackenzie Foy. (This review is of the French original, which holds the charm of hearing little children mice speaking timidly in French. Be warned: The cuteness is almost unbearable.)
An orphanage of mice has gathered around Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner, the daughter of “Triplets of Belleville” producer Didier Brunner, also a producer here), a bright young mouse who  —  despite the stern warnings of their frightful headmaster (Anne-Marie Loop) that such ideas are dangerous  —  imagines a bear and mouse as pals.

In the world of “Ernest & Celestine,” this is tantamount to heresy. The mice live below ground and the bears above  —  the car-driving, shop-keeping human equivalents in this universe. Their lone interaction is when a bear cub loses a tooth, which the “fairy mouse” replaces with a coin. (This, it turns out, is a mutually beneficial deal, since mice dentists depend on bear teeth to fashion tooth replacements.) It’s when Celestine is on such a fairy mouse mission that she’s discovered by a shrieking family and thrown out of the house and into the trash. The next day, she’s unwittingly rescued by Ernest, a grumpy and woefully unsuccessful street-musician clad in a ragged old overcoat and hat. (When police confiscate his one-man-band instruments, Ernest eats the ticket.)
Desperate for food, he initially tries to swallow Celestine, too, as he rummages through garbage cans. Though greatly outsized, she cheerfully extends her paw and introduces herself. The plucky Celestine then slaps him across the nose and chastises, “Do you think a little mouse like me will fill you up?”
But after Celestine leads him to sweets, they start up an unlikely friendship and, later, become wanted burglars on the lam. Celestine is sought by mice police (for Celestine’s affiliation with a bear), while Ernest is pursued by bear police (for his food stealing and, to help Celestine, tooth thievery). Even holed up in his country cabin, they don’t immediately hit it off, as Ernest still turns his nose up at living with an inferior mouse.

It’s a little story, told economically and with graceful minimalism. Sound effects have the simplicity of a Richard Bresson film. The music by jazz cellist Vincent Courtois is a sweetly melancholy companion to the fairy tale, which despite its cuteness, has a rascally French sense of humor, too.
Where did such a lovely little movie come from? It’s based on the whimsical children’s books by the Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent (the first “Ernest & Celestine” book dates to 1980) and directed by the young French animator Benjamin Renner, joined by co-directors Vincent Patar and St­©phane Aubier.
Together, they’ve created not just a positively charming movie, but an ode to the tactile pleasures of handcrafted artistry. Moviegoers will swear the coloring ink must have stained their local theater’s movie screens. It’s very nearly the sweetest thing ever, a magical reminder that the movies just need a little heart and the resolve to be intimate when so many films would rather boast their size. It’s a movie to share, like a cherished picture book or a beloved Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip, with imaginative pipsqueaks like Celestine.
“Ernest & Celestine,” a GKIDS release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of American for “some scary moments.” Running time: 80 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

NEW YORK: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” scored the biggest digital debut in Lionsgate history, the studio said Tuesday.
Lionsgate did not provide exact numbers, but said that opening weekend digital sales for the sequel rose 40 percent over the first film in the series. The picture also sold an estimated 3.9 million DVD and Blu-ray units in the United States in its first weekend of release, a modest increase over the 3.8 million “The Hunger Games” sold when it hit store shelves in 2012.
Benjamin Mogil, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., said the results were a “very positive start” and estimated that the film would sell 9.4 million DVD and Blu-ray units.
“We note that the average price point and margin was likely higher than that of ‘Hunger Games,’ as 50% of sales were in Blu-ray as compared to 35% for the prior film,” Mogil wrote in a note. “Margins were likely higher as well due to the higher share form digital sales.”
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” debuted in first place on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Comcast Xfinity and all major digital platforms, Lionsgate said.
“This is a monster opening and a tremendous result for the second film in a franchise, underscoring the enormous momentum of ‘The Hunger Games’ films,” Ron Schwartz, Lionsgate president and general manager of home entertainment sales & distribution, said in a statement.
The strong home entertainment debut comes as sales for physical discs continue to slide from their peak popularity in the mid-aughts. It’s a testament to the strength of a franchise that has become global in scope. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” amassed $863.9 million at the worldwide box office, while the first film in the series earned $691.2 million.
The next two films, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Parts 1 & 2,” will be released on November 21, 2014 and November 20, 2015, respectively.
LOS ANGELES: “12 Years a Slave” rode its Best Picture Oscar to a big weekend at the foreign box office and crossed $100 million in overseas grosses in the process.
Foreign distributor Lionsgate mounted a major marketing push tied to its three Academy Awards in 62 markets and the slavery saga brought in $9.3 million - a 75 percent surge over last weekend.
“12 Years,” which also earned Oscars for supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o and John Ridley for adapted screenplay, has played in most countries.
The film brought in $31.7 million in the UK, where director Steve McQueen is from and it won top honors at the BAFTAS. France ($13.7 million), Spain ($7.4 million), Germany ($5.7 million) and Australia ($5.3 million) have also been strong.
It’s taken in $104.5 million overseas since it began rolling out in December. With the $2 million in brought in over the weekend for US distributor Fox Searchlight, it’s up to up to $53.2 million domestically and $158 million worldwide.
New Regency, River Road Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Film 4 are producers.
By Jake Coyle

By: Jake Coyle

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