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SIFF ’16 Capsule Review: ‘LIFE, ANIMATED’

There’s no debating the value of Roger Ross William‘s accomplishment. In Life, Animated – a touching documentary centered on late-onset autism “victim” Owen Suskind and how he remarkably rediscovers language through animated Disney films – he has given voice to the voiceless (technical ingenuity had him pioneer a groundbreaking method to illicit confessionals from Owen). In Owen’s journey, we discover universal truisms that extent far beyond the realm of the autistic; bone-clattering truths about life, love, loss and suffering. Original animation from Mac Guff helps fill in the documentarian voids and provides stirring and visually resplendent representations of Owen’s young years and the self-penned stories he would escape into. Framing Owen’s relationships – with family members, his girlfriend Emily and some very special friends – in such a way that rejuvenates our collective faith in humanity, William’s picture is an objective triumph, one that shines a light on a misunderstood population, that weaves triumph from tragedy and crafts a moving portrait of perseverance. It’s a tribute to an uncommon hero and is truly something special. (A) Read More

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Out in Theaters: ERNEST & CÉLESTINE

“Ernest & Célestine” 
Directed by Stéphane AubierVincent PatarBenjamin Renner

Starring Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Dominique Maurin, Anne-Marie Loop

Animated 

81 Mins 
PG

 

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 We all remember the stories our parents or grandparents told us when we were little. They’d tuck us in, put us to bed. But we wouldn’t sleep; we’d just shuffle and whine. Naturally! Who could blame us? Who could possibly fall asleep without a story? “Tell me a story. Just one. Please?” we’d beg. “Oh fine,” they’d say. “One story.”

Ernest & Célestine is a tale you never want to stop; a true love story, a lasting fable. And, just like any good story, it starts with a rhyme. An elegant rhyme that flows just as beautifully as the film itself: Qu’est-ce que tu dessines, Célestine? What are you drawing, Celestine? Among a throng of curious young mice, she’s sketching a bear and a mouse playing together. 

Blasphemy! they say. Bears and mice can never mix! It’s just not done!

The mice live in a charming, buzzing, underground city in constant terror of the bears overhead. Children are told stories about “the Big Bad Bear,” who eats young mice by the thousand, while above-ground, bears set up traps to keep the scurrying rodents from infesting their homes and eating their food. Each side fears the other, terrified of their differences and blinded by prejudice and history.

Célestine is an orphan mouse. She’s an artist: a painter, a dreamer. Her sketchbook is filled with reverie and pure daydreams. Ernest is the same way, a multi-talented musician and actor. They’re impassioned by the arts but society tells them that they have to be something else: Ernest is born to be a lawyer, Célestine a dentist. As such, they’re reclusive outcasts misunderstood for their divergence. These mice and bears might not be so dissimilar after all.

He’s big and bumbling, she’s small and fragile. Where he’s obnoxious and grumbling, she’s intelligent and crafty. Together, they complement each other perfectly. Their friendship starts as bizarrely as you would expect a mouse-and-bear companionship to spark: he tries to eat her. Once they realize they can help each other out, they form an unusual bond. Things work out well at first, until Célestine brings Ernest underground.

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Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the latest Academy Awards, this film puts Frozen to shame. Ernest & Célestine is a cute, bubbly animated film that explores social norms with a youthful innocence. What happens when we choose to follow our dreams, and not what society tells us to do? With cunning precision, directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner paint a masterful canvas, full of beautiful images and even more stunning characters.

Visually, it’s splendidly simple. All the colors are faded like any old storybook’s pages might be: light red’s and maroons, worn yellows, soft greens, dull golds and browns. Scenes swirl together like a painter’s strokes. Ernest and Célestine’s rambunctious adventures pepper it with impasto. There’s texture everywhere here. Grainy at times, smooth and watert others. The artists’ wet brush strokes are emotional Haboku, a watercolor of feeling.

Vibrant amusement pushes this film at an astonishingly refreshing pace. The filmmakers involved have a glint in their eye, a skip in their step as they joyfully weave this elegant narrative. With comedy and goofy silliness to be found everywhere, it’s hard not to smile and laugh along with this peculiar couple as they rebel against their rash societies. Mice bench press mouse traps, bears and mice combine to do some terrible policing and a bear family runs a candy shop Ponzi scheme.

The illustrators weren’t the only artists in this picture. Voice work from Lambert Wilson (Ernest) and Pauline Brunner (Célestine) is charming, sweet and lighthearted. Like great storytellers, they bring the characters to life, delivering a masterful trance that rushes back a fuzzy nostalgic sensation. You could only dream to be tucked in by these two as they read a bedtime story and put you softly to sleep. They certainly make the experience a spirited fantasy.

Even the villains are fun in their exaggerated wickedness. Célestine’s orphan headmaster La Grise (Anne-Marie Loop), an old fat rat with two enormous front teeth, delights in frightening the children with her stories of the Big Bad Bear. With a raspy voice and a nasty wrath, she spits out her words until one of her incisors goes with them. Hilarity ensues: she rages on incoherently as the children break out into a massive pillow fight.

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And the music. Ah, the music. Glockenspiel, cello, xylophone, piano, clarinet, even tuba. All flow together like the paint that animates Ernest and Célestine. Floating about like a flower in spring or snow in winter, the soundtrack fills the film with life and heart. Yours beats along with it.

Ernest & Célestine is the same story that never goes away: bears and mice can’t interact. Well, why not? It’s just not… normal. And, as always, there’s so much more to this story than just a bear and a mouse. Ernest & Célestine strikes at oppression, bigotry and misunderstanding. Just as in any fable, there’s an underlying narrative, a story hidden in plain sight. France—the land of fables—delivers another refreshing one for the ages with deep morals to boot. This is my favorite film I’ve seen all year, and I don’t think that will change for a good while.

When your eyes water at the end, you’ll be wishing for a youth lost long ago. Why can’t everything be as candidly simple as this? Célestine asks Ernest: Et après celle-la, on en racontera d’autres des histoires, Ernest? After this one, are we going to tell more stories Ernest? Plein d’autres, Célestine. Plein d’autres. Plenty more, Célestine. Plenty more.

Wrapped up under those covers, way back when, your eyes close shut.

“Well, what story do you want to hear?”

“How about Ernest & Célestine? Tell me that one.”

A+

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