"I love to tell stories about animals," says Benjamin Renner, "and about animals eating each other."
Renner directed Ernest and Celestine, a French animated feature loosely based on a series of children's books of the same name. The film, which was nominated for the Best Animated Feature in last night's Academy Awards (it lost to Frozen), is currently playing at West L.A.'s Landmark Theater. The director was on hand at Saturday afternoon's screenings.
In Ernest and Celestine, bears and mice live in separate worlds. The bears are above ground, the mice are burrowed beneath the streets. The two animals fear and generally dislike each other, with the mice concerned that bears will eat them. For the film's heroes, a friendship is formed after Ernest tries and fails to snack on Celestine. Renner didn't write the script - that duty went Daniel Pennac, who took liberties with Gabrielle Vincent's books - but the feature film is a bit similar to Renner's own student film.
Back in school, Renner, who is based in France, made a short called "A Mouse's Tale." In it, a lion attempts to eat a mouse. The mouse offers to procure an alternate meal for the hungry beast. The lion, however, is unsatisfied with the provisions. However, if we've learned one thing from Tom and Jerry, it's that the rodent will always outsmart the feline. Renner doesn't stray far from cartoon doctrine.
Ernest and Celestine is Renner's first stab at a feature film. Five years ago, when he was brought into the project, the director had just finished his studies. Renner is influenced by classics new and old. Japanese animation, particular the works of Studio Ghibli and late director Satoshi Kohn, is a big influence. So are vintage Looney Tunes clips, as well as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films. It's that mix of artful animation and the rhythm of slapstick comedy that makes Ernest and Celestine such a joy to watch.
Prior to our interview, Renner and producer Didier Brunner (The Triplets of Belleville) sat down for a Q and A session following a screening of the film. Brunner explained that the Ernest and Celestine books were a personal favorite. He had read them to his daughter and had long wanted to adapt them for film. However, author Gabrielle Vincent was insistent that there would be no Ernest and Celestine, the movie, while she was alive. Years after her death, the film went into production.
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In our interview, Renner explains that the film is a departure from the books. In Vincent's original work, he says, the bears act as parents to mice who are, essentially, their children. In Pennac's script, the two groups are enemies. Renner explains that dealing with the prejudice of this new world, as well as the titular characters' taboo friendship, is a way of moving towards the life depicted in the books. "It was a long time before I could completely, fully understand the script," he says. In the end, he read it as similar to a Romeo & Juliet story, but with friendship replacing romantic love.
While the story changed, the art remained in the spirit of Vincent's work. Her illustrations, Renner says, were the biggest point of reference for the film. That's evident from the soft color palette to elements that appear as pencil strokes.
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Renner remained involved in the film through the dubbing process, at least for the beginning of it. "The actors really worked on trying to do something similar to the French version because they really liked it," he says. "I listened to one or two sessions and realized that I had nothing to do. I just had to sit and relax."
Now that Ernest & Celestine is done, Renner has moved onto a new project. He's currently working on a graphic novel, one that is thematically similar to his work in animation. "It's about a fox," he says. "He wants to eat a chicken, but he's too weak."