Dec 16, 2012

Continental Film Club: Ernest et Celestine (2012)

An adventurous but not-too-scary prequel to Gabrielle Vincent's classic Francophone kids' books about the friendship between a mouse and a bear.

* Review contains spoilers *

There are plenty of recent examples of the risks of turning beloved children's picture books into feature-length films. Though my sisters love it, I think The Grinch with Jim Carrey is a supersaturated mess which fails to convey the point of Dr. Seuss' original (and this is though I normally like Ron Howard's films); I didn't like Spike Jonze's take on Where the Wild Things Are for different reasons; and though I didn't see it, I remember that The Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers was not only universally panned but also caused Audrey Geissel, Dr. Seuess' widow, to withhold the rights and prevent future live-action films of the books. And even with less extreme examples, plot padding and the unnecessary introduction of more "action" often takes away what the stories were really about and seem like unimaginative, exploitative derivations. (I do love Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs but haven't read the book, so it didn't tarnish any childhood memories for me.)

So since the late Gabrielle Vincent's Ernest et Celestine books are among my childhood favorites, I entered the film with slight trepidation (and not just because this was the time I took T to see a movie at the theater).

At first, my concerns seemed justified: the characterization of the main characters, mythology of the story, genre, and even drawing style in the film is completely different from the books (though this is addressed and retconned at the end of the movie). In the book, Ernest is a melancholy bohemian musician; in the film, he's more destitute and has anger issues - and I wasn't especially fond of his portrayal in the beginning of the film. I found Celestine's reimagining from shy and sweet to confident (but still sweet) less egregious - it made her a stronger character which worked with the film's storyline.

Now while the book is rendered like this:

The characters in the film look like this:

I'm probably being unreasonably purist about this issue - but to me, the difference is huge.

And whereas the books concern events that are exciting mostly on the smaller scale of things (losing a stuffed animal; raising money for house repairs through busking), the film had chase sequences, arrests, collapsing buildings, subplots - drama.

But after 20 minutes of drawing comparisons, I forced myself to let go (which included no longer obsessing about how to reconcile the film's long-standing enmity between mice and bears with the books where they're living in complete harmony without the impression of recently having overcome a humungous schism) and just enjoy the movie on its own merits.

No signs of long-standing interspecies resentment here.

Most importantly: both T and sister 4, who is 7, really liked the movie. They were able to follow the plot without relying on hushed simultaneous translations too much (neither of them speaks French), and weren't too scared by the more dramatic scenes. Though T did remember she had to go to the bathroom towards the denouement, so the action might be a bit excessive for the littlest ones. But the children in the audience - 3-10 year olds - were all pretty much gripped by the film.

And ultimately, I also liked it. Probably because despite all the differences, the friendship and love between Ernest and Celestine - the underlying heart of the stories - stayed intact. So unsurprisingly, my favorite scenes take place when they're just hanging out in their house, painting, making music, and being there for each other when they have nightmares.

Verdict: A family-friendly adventurous story of the joys of friendship, love, and (mild) noncomformism. It helps to know that in French folklore, deciduous teeth are collected by mice, not fairies.

Movie images from the Art et Essaie pamphlet on the film; book pictures from my copy of Bravo, Ernest and Celestine!

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