One of the biggest surprise nominees at this year’s Academy Awards was this little-seen French animated film. Thanks to its new arrival on Blu-ray on June 17, it’s now readily accessible to the U.S. masses.
This is a tale of two cities: the city above ground populated by bears, and the city underground populated by mice. The two tribes keep entirely to themselves, with mice being trained from childhood to avoid the fearsome bears at all costs, but adorable orphan mouse Celestine fantasizes about friendly bears in spite of the warnings of her elders. Meanwhile above ground, lovable oaf Ernest is a drifter and a beggar who doesn’t fit in with the job-minded bears around him, instead contenting himself with scraping by on the kindness of others.
When Celestine ventures above ground to explore the forbidden city, she quickly encounters Ernest and finds in him a kindred spirit. After a series of occasionally criminal misadventures in the bear city, they eventually relocate to a peaceful country house where they hope to be left alone to enjoy each other’s illicit company while escaping the long arm of the law. Although they avoid detection for a long and snowy winter, the cops inevitably catch up with them, setting up massive court trials in both cities that lead to the fitting conclusion.
If the plot sounds a bit thin, it is. There’s not much going on in the film, no grand quest or major antagonist, just a simple story of two outsiders carving out a comfortable existence for themselves. It’s the kind of low-key tale that could never be made in the U.S. studio system, making its availability here all the sweeter. While the narrative isn’t all that compelling, the animated world is so artistically expressed that it’s a joy just to spend the film’s running time exploring it.
The film mirrors the lush and inviting watercolor backgrounds of its source children’s book series, although the character designs are noticeably different. Celestine the mouse in particular is much cuter in the film than the books, an artistic choice clearly made to enhance her appeal. Although the characters aren’t painted in the same watercolor palette as the gorgeous backgrounds, they’re colored in a suitably muted style that pairs well. The Blu-ray presentation of the appealing visuals is top-notch, with no visible artifacting present.
The U.S. vocal cast is headlined by Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy, with supporting contributions from impressive talent such as William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti. While Foy (Twilight films) is perfectly cast as the sweet young Celestine, Whitaker is a bit out of his depth here. Sure, he gets the standard gruff bear voice down, but Ernest is occasionally quite, well, animated, requiring a voice with much more comedic and expressive range than the monotone growl we’re left with here. Thankfully, the Blu-ray includes the original French audio track as well, allowing us to enjoy the much more effective Lambert Wilson (Merovingian from The Matrix sequels) in the role.
Bonus features are extensive and impressive, led by a nearly one-hour featurette on the making of the film including interviews with the creators and French vocal cast. Although the feature is entirely in French, English subtitles are included. Elsewhere, the film’s director further discusses the film in English during a brief interview. Finally, the disc includes a feature-length animatic of the film, allowing viewers to see the early stages of its production.