"Ernest & Celestine," the charming French-Belgium animated film and Oscar nominee, is about a bear and a mouse whose artistic tendencies are forever getting them into trouble. Marked as outsiders by their respective societies, they forge an unlikely friendship; an ill-tempered uproar is unleashed, and a delightful movie results.

Based on the lovely children's books by Gabrielle Vincent, with a screenplay by noted novelist Daniel Pennac ("Cabot-Caboche"), this lively and larcenous tale is softened by its watercolor pastiche and minimalist animation. A magically understated mash-up, "Ernest & Celestine" has a comforting storybook effect and proves a refreshing departure in an age of high-tech, hyperkinetic animation set to soaring pop ballads, as entertaining as they can be.

The film is directed by three filmmakers, Belgian veterans Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier, probably best known here for their 2009 animated comic adventure, "The Town Called Panic," and Benjamin Renner, a novice discovered at the respected French animation graduate school, La Poudriere. I'm sure we'll be seeing much more from Renner.

Together with Pennac's amusingly irreverent storytelling style, the filmmakers have created a world of clashing mice and bears that is true to the original artistic imprint of Vincent and yet takes on a new life of its own. Originally voiced in French, it's been recast for the U.S. release with Forest Whitaker filling Ernest's big bumbling bear shoes and Mackenzie Foy ("Twilight's" Renesmee) as the tiny and anything but timid Celestine.


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They have not yet been introduced when the film opens. Celestine is tucked into one bed in a row inside an orphan's dorm. The Grey One (Lauren Bacall), a loose-toothed crone, scares the living daylights out of her charges with bedtime tales of the horrible terrors of bears.

In the snow-covered countryside far, far away, inside a snow-covered house, Ernest is sleeping the winter away, until a certain ache in his stomach gets him up and searching for something, anything, to eat. Though the house is already a mess, it will be a greater one before he sets out for the city in search of a morsel or two. He's a musician, but his street busking attracts no attention from anyone but the cops.

Once we fully understand Ernest and Celestine's outsider status, a series of unfortunate events puts them face to face on a city street, Ernest on the verge of popping Celestine into his mouth, the mouse in the midst of delivering him a lecture on the terribleness of crunching her bones. A friendship is born, and perhaps a film franchise is, too.

Unfortunately, any friendship between the species is frowned on, unthinkable. That drives the conflicts in the film as well as making the metaphoric possibilities nearly endless.

The filmmakers, though, are as intent on having fun as on sending serious messages, and it is an absolute delight to watch the pals get in and out of scrapes as the bonds of their friendship deepen to make them a modern family.

From its inventive visuals to its unruly heroes, "Ernest & Celestine" is an equal pleasure for children and adults. A modern-day period piece, a fabulous fable, a most fortunate use of animation artistry, it would most likely make Vincent, who refused to allow her books to be translated to TV or film during her lifetime, well pleased.

'Ernest & Celestine'

* * * ½

Rating: NR
Cast: English-language version voices by Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy
Director: Vincent Patar, Stephane Aubier and Benjamin Renner, off a screenplay by Daniel Pennac
Running time: One hour, 20 minutes