The Freedom of Music — Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia
As Awards Season gets underway, you’ll notice a shift in my regular coverage. I’ll of course watch and review every mainstream movie I can muster the strength to see, but as we get ever closer to next year’s Oscar Blitz, I’ll also be taking whatever steps possible to get out in front of potential nominees for the top prizes in the film industry. The major case in point right now is the fact we’re reaching the submission deadlines for some of the specialty categories. Next Friday, September 15, is the deadline for Animated Feature (and general ballot) candidates released between January and June of this year, October 2 is the deadline for Documentary Feature and International Feature, and November 15 is the final deadline for Animated Feature (and general ballot) for films debuting in the back half of the year. This will lead to timed press releases of the films eligible in the specialty categories ahead of shortlists announced in December.
It’s with this timetable in mind that I’m ramping up my viewing and writing schedule somewhat, as this review, and the next one, will cover films in those fields. The latter will be the first International Feature submission I’ve been able to get my eyes on (despite the October cutoff, more than a dozen countries have already revealed their competitors, and I’m doing my due diligence to track down as many as I’m able), and the former is an entry that will almost certainly be submitted for Animated Feature, as it’s a sequel to a previous nominee.
And so, to business. Back in 2012, Ernest & Celestine was released to an adoring public that relished the animation style, sympathetic characters, child-friendly story, and overall enchanting presentation, particularly its reassuring, comforting mantra of “I am not your nightmare.” It was nominated for Animated Feature, but was doomed the moment Frozen came into existence. Still, to watch the film was to fall in love with the simple yet gorgeous tale about a precocious mouse becoming friends with a gruff bear in a silly society where each species feared the other, and the entire economic system was predicated on the rotting and replacement of ursine teeth. It was a beautiful film, ending on the hopeful note from the little mouse girl that there would be many more stories to come from the pair.
Fast forward a decade, and we’ve finally gotten that long-awaited follow-up, Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, one of the most endlessly delightful pieces of children’s entertainment I’ve seen in a while. Every bit as heartfelt and engaging as its predecessor, each second of this latest effort is awash in charm, empathy, and clever humor, once again emphasizing the importance of understanding and love in a world that’s inherently confusing.
Taking place some undisclosed time after the events of the first movie, things are looking a bit up for our misfit title pair. Ernest (a returning Lambert Wilson) is still grouchy and eternally hungry, but he’s got a renewed zest for life and music thanks to the warmth of his adopted ward, Celestine (Pauline Brunner, also reprising her role from 10 years ago). They live in a much more comfortable two-story house in the city, a noted upgrade from the ramshackle cabin Ernest had in the woods last time out. As Celestine cheerfully wakes up Ernest from his hibernation, the unlikely friends are still low on food, but high on morale.
The light mood changes drastically, however, when Celestine accidentally trips on Ernest’s slipper coming down the stairs, in the process breaking his prized violin — a Stradi-bear-ius; the wordplay game is on point even in French — and causing the mouse to feel extreme remorse, along with a determination to make things right. Learning from Ernest that the instrument was a gift from a friend named Octavius (Jean-Marc Pannetier) back in his home country of Gibberitia (basically meaning “Land of Nonsense” with the “-itia” suffix also serving as a secondary reference to the Russian cultural influence, since as Family Guy once informed us, just about everyone there is a bear on a unicycle), Celestine resolves to go there and get the violin repaired despite Ernest’s insistence that they don’t. His hand is forced when Celestine sets out on her own, getting temporarily lost in the mountain snows, and once he rescues her, Ernest acquiesces.
Taking a gondola lift down into the mountain valley, the pair reach Ernest’s home, a country where he says you can hear music on every street corner, which fostered his love for it, and inspired his leaving, as he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a judge rather than a musician. Contrary to Ernest’s glowing description, the area is quite literally one-note, as music has been all but outlawed in his absence, with all musicians ordered to only play the basic middle C. This informs a great running gag where police try to hose down birds for daring to tweet in a different register.
After being arrested for defying this insanity, Ernest learns the truth of the situation from his mother Kamelia (Céline Ronté): what Ernest had previously told Celestine about his leaving was accurate, but didn’t paint the whole picture. In Gibberitia, a child is legally obligated to take on their parent’s mantle. Boys go into the same business as their fathers, and girls their mothers. When Ernest refused to become a judge like his dad, Naboukov (Michel Lerousseau), he and the other judges passed “Ernestov’s Law” (in a cute touch, just about every noun in Gibberitia ends in “-ov”), which forbade all forms of music. Most of the citizens go along with this rigid authoritarianism, but there is a small Musical Resistance, led by the masked vigilante, Mifasol (subtitled as “EFG” to correspond to the diatonic scale name), who gallivants around town disturbing the peace by lifting everyone’s spirits. Seeing the impact that his dreams have had on his home and family, Ernest, ever the pessimist, begins to take stock of his life choices, and after reuniting with his sister Mila (Lévanah Solomon), who is studying to take over her mother’s medical practice, he considers sacrificing his passions — and his life with Celestine — in order to satisfy tradition and the status quo.
All in all, this is a relatively simple story that works perfectly on a child’s level, just like the last one. It takes place in a recognizable world that is vastly different from our own from a visual perspective, but no so much in practicality. The entire cast is relatable, even the antagonists, because no one is inherently bad or wrong in their views, with the film going to great lengths to give weight and credibility to everyone’s position and experience. The absurdity of the laws is a lesson in how to express disagreements and suggestions for a better path forward without denigrating what came before, with Celestine acting as an outside and relatively unbiased (in spite of her love for Ernest) observer offering common sense solutions that aren’t dismissed, but merely hadn’t been considered because of the isolated nature of the community. When you live in a bubble, or in this case an almost literal echo chamber given the geography of the region, even the most obvious ideas can seem foreign, noted here by the fact that mice don’t live in Gibberitia, and most of the residents have never seen one until now.
This is supplemented by the absolutely gorgeous animation that continues from the previous outing. A soft, water color motif keeps everything light and bright, with minimal outlining and plenty of space for brilliant exercises in imagination. The best two examples that come to mind are a system of railway hooks that resemble notes on a scale, and jail cell keys inside police batons shaped like treble clefs. It’s these expert touches that keep things upbeat enough for kids and adults so that when the more emotional moments hit, you’re affected all the more. Ernest and Celestine as characters complement each other perfectly, and when you see such masterful use of color and shadow coupled with Celestine calling out for her friend and burrowing her tiny head into his massive shoulder, you can’t help but get choked up.
There’s an unbelievable amount of care put into every frame of this movie. I’m not just talking about the attention to detail in the animation or the innovative score that fuses modern jazz with traditional Russian-style folk music. I’m talking about a true commitment to the act of caring that pervades the entire film. The characters show affection and empathy to each other, even when they fundamentally disagree. The grizzled (PUNS!) exterior of the bears belies a deep sensitivity and desire to do right by each other, even if it means letting go of their own happiness in exchange. Celestine and Mila are adamant about showing their family and friends the best versions of themselves and holding them to them through leading by example. And through it all, the love and tenderness that they all show provides a note-perfect example of how we all should conduct ourselves, even — and especially — in times when the powers that be seem completely idiotic.
What could be better for a child than that? Hell, I know a whole host of adults who would be well served by such insight.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What animated movies do you think will vie for the Oscar next year? Is Celestine’s enthusiasm for life infectious as all get out or what? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!