There's a Belgian spread called speculoos that's been making inroads into American cuisine lately. The ingredients are familiar, but the overall flavor can be puzzling: Is it gingery, caramelly, egg-noggy? For Yanks with an average palate, it's tough to say.
Another Belgian export, the animated film "Ernest & Celestine," is a bit like speculoos: slightly sweet and rather strange. Based on characters created by the author-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, "Ernest & Celestine" has been well-received Stateside and was nominated for an Academy Award. This is one children's movie, though, that is definitely a matter of taste.
Its heroes are a plucky mouse, Celestine (the voice of Mackenzie Foy), and a grouchy bear, Ernest (Forest Whitaker), who overcome natural enmity and social prejudice to become friends. That's a solid, timeless story, but it gets utterly lost in a jumble of ideas, themes and narrative fragments.
For starters, Celestine is an orphan (listen for Lauren Bacall as a ranting headmistress) who likes to draw bears. This is odd, since all mouse citizens live in constant mortal terror of bears. Even odder, Celestine works for the town's Head Dentist (William H. Macy), who forces her to collect loose incisors from bear cubs. On assignment she befriends Ernest, a musically talented hobo with an unattractive temper. When their relationship is discovered, mouse and bear go on the lam, then hole up in a secluded cabin -- an idyllic, almost romantic lull that proves short-lived.
Two of the movie's three directors are the creators of "A Town Called Panic" (2009), an almost insanely inventive stop-motion spectacle, and their inability to self-edit may once again be the problem. Their notions of whimsy more often resemble nonsense, and the movie is padded with random digressions even at a scant 80 minutes. (The French novelist Daniel Pennac wrote the script.) The delicate, hand-drawn animation and watercolor backgrounds are impressive but also strangely muted -- tans, greys, browns, a bit of pale pink in Celestine's little cape.
The one bright spot is Vincent Courtois' winsome, breezy, strolling-the-Boulevard score. It has a warmth and charm that the movie itself is too scattered to muster.
PLOT A little mouse and a massive bear form an unlikely friendship.
RATING PG (some scary moments)
CAST Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, William H. Macy
BOTTOM LINE Delicate animation and a charming score may be why this Belgian film earned an Oscar nomination. Its story, however, makes no sense whatsoever.