THE CANNES FILM Festival tends to be associated with glamorous stars and heavy-duty art-house fare. But the 2012 edition saw the world premiere of an animated tale about the unlikely friendship that forms between a large bear named Ernest and a small mouse named Celestine.
The enchanting and tender Ernest & Celestine was inspired by Belgian writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent's bestselling series of children's books which were originally published between 1982 and 2001. But in the eyes of one of this Belgian-French co-production's three directors, it is a work with depth and profundity to match the live-action films shown at Cannes.
" Ernest & Celestine is the story of two outsiders," says Belgian filmmaker Vincent Patar. "Ernest is a solitary, penniless clown-musician while Celestine is an orphan and aspiring painter. Though they both do their best to meet the expectations of their societies, they fail. But Ernest and Celestine find a way to connect through their passion for independence and for the arts, in spite of prejudices. They remain loyal to their friendship against all the odds, boldly facing the incomprehension and hostility of their folks."
It was Ernest & Celestine's message of tolerance that prompted Patar and his long-time professional partner, animator Stéphane Aubier, to decide to get on board the project when they heard about it in 2008, while they were working on the post-production of their 3-D stop-motion feature film A Town Called Panic.
Five years in the making, Ernest & Celestine, a 2-D hand-drawn animation, has gone on to win several awards - including the SACD Special Mention at Cannes for Patar, Aubier and fellow director Benjamin Renner, and the Best Animated Film César - and played at several festivals, including the Hong Kong International Film Festival, over the past year or so.
Possessing a delicate watercolour palette and featuring vividly sketched main characters, as well as a lively swinging soundtrack by Vincent Courtois, it is clearly the work of a team of dedicated and highly skilled professionals - one assembled by French producer Didier Brunner, a man with a personal and professional interest in Ernest & Celestine.
"Many years ago, Brunner used to read the adventures of Ernest and Celestine to his daughter when he put her to bed. He has always been fascinated by the universe of Gabrielle Vincent. So when he unexpectedly got the opportunity to purchase the rights to the cartoon characters back in 2007, he jumped at the chance," Patar says.
Being a fan of Vincent's works, Brunner knew that in her lifetime, the author - who died in 2000 - had been against her work being made for television and the cinema. A British film studio had tried to adapt her work, but she did not like the plain style they proposed, and that put Vincent off the idea for good. So Brunner felt an obligation to put together the right mix of talent for the job.
"His first move was to engage the renowned French author Daniel Pennac to write the screenplay, feeling he had a sensibility close to that of Gabrielle Vincent," Aubier says.
But this did not mean that the writer slavishly stuck to Vincent's storylines.
"In his screenplay version Pennac imagined how Ernest and Celestine eventually met for the first time; this was something completely new, and never mentioned in the original books. Pennac also added a darker tone to the story, and made the film thoroughly gripping for adult audiences," says Aubier.
Next, Brunner went about engaging a director. First, he offered the project to young French filmmaker Benjamin Renner, whose 2007 graduation film was the award-winning animation short A Mouse's Tale. But Renner felt he lacked the experience to take it on alone and asked for help. "That is when we came on board," says Aubier.
Patar recalls that, "Starting out from a four-minute 'pilot' previously created by Benjamin Renner, we worked with him on the storyboard and the development of the characters, successively creating a mock-up of the movie by adding some sounds and provisional voices."
The task of transforming the screenplay into images fell to the Belgian duo. "Sometimes we had to leave out details to focus on the characters and their emotions, on others we had to further develop Pennac's vision. The underground mice world, for instance, does not exist in the original books, so we had to create it visually from scratch. We also wanted to keep a children's book style in the movie."
They also had a hand in adding a dash of humour to the overall sentimental, romantic atmosphere. In doing so, Patar says, "We were inspired by the ironic undertone of Pennac's screenplay and, undeniably, by the burlesque spirit of [Charlie] Chaplin."
"A lot of people were surprised to see a 2-D and not a 3-D film, which is pretty much the usual format nowadays," says Aubier. "But even among traditional animation movies, Ernest & Celestine sticks out because of its hitherto unseen watercolour drawings."
On this matter, Patar and Aubier took a cue from their younger colleague, who counts Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki - famous for his hand-drawn animation - among his major inspirations.
"Renner's intention was to pay tribute to Vincent's work and her watercolour sketches by reproducing her distinctive graphic style in the movie's visuals," Aubier says.
This they endeavoured to do, even after discovering that this task would not be at all easy. "Recreating the impression of a handmade watercolour drawing by digital means was a major challenge for our team, but finally Digital Graphics, a Belgian studio, came up with a new software package to make it possible," Aubier says.
"The result was stunning: no one could tell the difference between the characters, which were created digitally, and the film settings, which were drawn by hand on paper."
Their technical achievements aside, Aubier's biggest pleasure is that the film can still surprise him: "Every time I watch it, I keep discovering something new in it, a fresh detail, and I never get tired of it. Apparently, the whole film team shares the same feeling. That is definitely a big reward for me," he says.
Patar says: "I was thrilled by the enthusiastic reaction of the children at the screenings, but I was even more pleased and surprised by the interest expressed by adult viewers. I found that adults enjoyed the movie as much as children. I couldn't have hoped for more!"
Ernest & Celestine opens on June 20