How is it that a modern cartoon could capture what is one of the most complicated philosophical social questions of any age?
It’s all the more impressive that this film carries off the feat while most adult movies busy themselves with run-of-the-mill crime and sex.
Maybe we just get stupider as we get older. That’s what I thought as I watched Ernest and Celestine (Ernest et Célestine, 2012). It’s a hand-drawn, feature-length French cartoon with three directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner.
You could watch this movie and enjoy the watercolor animation. The cutesy anthropomorphized animals. The childish, slapstick humor. And it’s true that reviews called Ernest and Celestine stretched. They said that it tried too hard to be feature-length. That it’s an unremarkable film whose subject matter transcends itself only because it embraces the classic, hand-drawn animation.
But it’s not.
This is a story about the artist’s role as prophet in society. Not the hokey religious kind. But the outsider who sees the trends, where we’re headed, and helps society avoid disaster. Too big a concept?
This story is also about choosing your own path when society pushes you to fit the model. It’s a wake up call for anyone who ignores what makes them happy in favor of fitting in.
Maybe it’s easier to miss what this story really is because we’ve lost touch with the importanc of the question. Where do we as individuals fit into society? And how do the paths we choose make and break us?
And maybe this seems like a childish question because we learn to stop asking it at age ten. When we give up on ourselves in favor of fitting in.
Or maybe it really is just a sweet cartoon with nothing big to say. What do you think?
Consider these seven times Ernest and Celestine make you question your place in society or your role as a writer and artist.
They’ll make you a better writer. And they might just make you a better human.
7 Lessons from Ernest and Celestine That Will Make You A Better Writer (And A Better Human)
#1 Ignore Society, and Follow The Path That Makes You Happy
This is a reminder any writer can use. Because following our dreams sometimes has its drawbacks. Like the fact that traditional jobs pay on a consistent schedule and ours…well, doesn’t.
Ernest and Celestine are artists on the fringes of society. Ernest, a street performer, plays music on the corner for donations. His work is illegal, and he gets arrested.
Celestine is a painter and orphan. Her work, drawings of mice and bears who befriend each other (Did I mention Celestine is a mouse and Ernest is a bear?), makes her the target of suspicion and anger. Mice and bears cannot be friends, her guardian and everyone else tells her.
But Celestine doesn’t take their word for it. Instead she proves them wrong and makes friends with Ernest.
And most of this movie is about the paradigm shift that Ernest and Celestine accidentally set off. By choosing to befriend each other in spite of the fear-mongering that their respective societies spout, Ernest and Celestine spark the change that ultimately strengthens both societies. And they both end up happier.
#2 Moral and Legal Aren’t Always Equal
First we encounter high-status but predatory members of the bear society. A husband and wife duo who sale candy to children to knowingly decay their teeth only to sale them dental services later.
Their business structure is unethical but legal. This while Ernest is arrested for playing music.
If you start to question who the real criminals are, you’re not alone. And if it makes you question the same in your society, then this movie is anything but dismissible.
How’s that for making you think? And it’s a good example for your swipe file when you’re looking for ways to say something big in your own work.
#3 The Writer’s Role In Society Is To Expose Social Ills In Order To Heal Them
Since the mice use their teeth for industry, to build their elaborate transportation system and industrial structure, they lose their teeth to wear. They use bear teeth to replace them.
That means Celestine’s society depends on bear teeth to run. So Celestine collects baby bear teeth for the mice dentists. Without those bear teeth, the mouse dentist explains, mouse society would crumble.
Yet mice hate bears. And Celestine’s orphanage guardian tells terrifying stories about bears to scare the children and make them hate bears too.
The prejudice and stereotyping in the guardian’s tale is already a red flag. Worse that mouse society depends on bear society while hating them.
Because of hints like these, we know that something isn’t stable. And anything unstable eventually falls apart. Celestine’s job is to head off collapse before it can happen.
#4 The People Who Care Most About Society Are Often The Ones Who Question Its Failings
In the end, Ernest and Celestine are the force of change for the greater good. The elements that cause temporary upheaval in the system with the ultimate goal of saving it.
Unlike the predatory bear couple who hurt kids (or the kids’ teeth, at least) to make a buck, Celestine genuinely cares about the people and the social order. She may not fit into the structure, but she ultimately preserves it.
“No one questions the foundation of our society!” says the judge while the courtroom burns down around him. Celestine questions the foundation of her society. She also sees the fire when the judge doesn’t and saves him from it.
It’s her questions that redeem her society in the end. That make it stronger. Because she forces a dialogue between strained civilization in a forced symbiosis.
And when Celestine asks “Is this how you want to raise your children?” she doesn’t tell us how. She reminds us we have a choice.
#5 Don’t Measure Your Success By The Conventional Stick or Choosing Your Path As A Writer May Not Be Easy, But It’s Worth It
Ernest and Celestine is also about following your passions. Making a place for yourself when you don’t fit the existing system.
Choosing the path of the writer or artist isn’t easy. It isn’t well-worn like many jobs out there. Checks don’t always arrive on a schedule. And too many people around us encourage us to quit.
Celestine says “I’m worthless” because she doesn’t fit the status quo. Because she’s trying to be something she’s not. She says, “I am alone in the world and no one likes me.”
But Ernest disagrees. “Celestine, who painted this, is not worthless!” he tells her.
That’s a good thing to remember when you feel like quitting.
#6 Sometimes, You Are Society
Ernest tells Celestine that mice and bears can’t live together. Here, he is society because he encourages Celestine to follow the status quo instead of her heart. That may sound hokey, but it’s a valid point.
Because Ernest is just one man (er, bear). He’s an individual. Society (and his father) told Ernest he couldn’t be a storyteller. He’s supposed to be a judge, like his father.
So who is society? Ernest and Celestine reminds us that we are. Society is you and it’s me and it’s anyone who pushes what they think is best on the people they love for “their own good.”
So who’s behind that mask? I am. When I told my kid brother that he shouldn’t pursue a career in movie directing.
And even though I told myself he needed a dose of reality because he only ever talked about movie directing and didn’t actually pursue it. Didn’t make mini movies in his backyard. Didn’t study set or lighting or scriptwriting. Didn’t join the myriad in-town film groups or festivals. I still played a part in killing his dream.
It would be stupid to defend myself here. Because we all have our reasons when we kill each other’s dreams. It’s rarely from malevolence but from love. So does the reason really matter?
After watching Ernest and Celestine, I have to say I don’t know.
And any movie that can make you reconsider your world view is a movie worth watching.
#7 Package The Big Questions into A Digestible Format
One thing I learned from watching Ernest and Celestine? You can ask the big questions and still make it entertaining.
Ernest and Celestine did. The fact that these themes don’t feel overwhelming—many didn’t even notice they were there—is a credit to the writers. For many, it’s just a sweet cartoon.
Or maybe they didn’t know what they were doing when they wrote it. In which case, Ernest and Celestine is a lesson to follow your subconscious when writing.
Either way, make your story easy to digest.
Do You Agree? Tell Me About It.
So what do you think? Is Ernest and Celestine just a fun kid’s cartoon? Or did it cleverly pack big themes into an easy-to-digest package? Share your insights in the comments.