“Ernest & Celestine” packs a lot of charm into a small story about the friendship between a bear and a mouse. Actually, “packs” is the wrong word. Charm isn’t something you stuff into a movie, particularly one as delicate as this. Drawn with squiggly little lines and colored with a palette of watery pastels, this French animated feature — winner of France’s Cesar award and a nominee at this year’s Oscars — looks like it might wash away in a hard rain. Its charms, and they are both subtle and many, emanate like perfume.
In fact, there’s a scene in the film where a downpour does erase what’s on screen. Ernest, the bear in question, has taken up residence with Celestine, a mouse. For reasons that I will get to in a moment, they are in hiding from the law, which frowns upon their inter-species relationship as much as it does their theft of a red van, which the two have painted in treelike camouflage to blend in with the Beatrix Potter-esque countryside where they’ve holed up.
All it takes is a sudden shower to undo what they’ve done.
Such is the nature of the film’s slackly meandering plot, in which the ups and downs are more mild than wild, and never terribly urgent. Based on the series of picture books by Belgian artist and author Gabrielle Vincent (1929-2000), “Ernest & Celestine” is built around a chain of loosely connected adventures precipitated by the decision of a plucky little mouse to leave the subterranean world of her kind for the land of bears, above ground.
Being plucky, Celestine is able to persuade the first bear who tries, rather half-heartedly, to eat her to break into a candy shop instead. Now branded as criminals, she and Ernest must flee to his almost criminally cozy cottage in the woods, where the two fugitives — and now unlikely best friends — await the long arm of the law.
That’s pretty much it, though there are other bumps in the tale (they can hardly be called crises).
One of the chief conflicts of “Ernest & Celestine” involves Celestine’s desire to be an artist instead of a dentist, and Ernest’s preference for making music over eating mice, as he is expected to do. They are free spirits and bohemians, not to mention French. Do you really think they would listen when the world tells them they can’t live under the same roof?
The film’s three directors, Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, create a world that feels emotionally real, without resorting to any of the eye-popping CGI tricks or 3-D animation so common to Hollywood cartoons. Aubier and Patar, who made the delightful 2009 film “A Town Called Panic” using only stop-motion animation, have a knack for telling stories with simple tools. But a large part of this film’s success is the expressive voice work and sound design, in which the gentle clunk of a wooden spoon hitting the floor registers as vividly as Celestine’s voice, which is both tiny and intrepid. (Pauline Brunner voices the character in the French version; Mackenzie Foy in the English-dubbed version, which also features Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.)
More than the sound and look of “Ernest & Celestine,” it’s the feelings the film explores that resonate. A talking bear and a mouse keeping house isn’t real, but their love surely feels like it is.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains a few mildly scary moments. “Ernest & Celestine” is being shown in both an English-dubbed version and in French with subtitles. 80 minutes.