The animated movie has a strong message about dealing with authoritarian overreach — like book bans
“A bear and a mouse busk for their supper” reads like a classic bar joke setup, tuned to suit children’s sense of humor and guileless outlook. “A bear and a mouse confront a musically anhedonic kritocracy” is more of a mouthful, and much less kid-friendly. So the education about rigid forms of government nestled in Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, Julien Chheng and Jean-Christophe Roger’s sequel to the 2012 animated feature Ernest & Celestine, feels a bit out of the blue.
But the first film focused on prejudice and ethnocentrism, concepts that seem equally advanced given the film’s intended accessibility for younger viewers. If you’ve ever wondered whether cartoon mice and bears can be friends, Ernest & Celestine has the answer. But the film answers bigger questions with its timeless themes of acceptance and inclusion. Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, on the other hand, is timely, and in spite of appearances, it’s one of 2023’s best political movies, centered on two unlikely messengers for commentary about bureaucratic overreach.
Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia begins with Ernest (Lambert Wilson, in the original French-language version) waking up from a three-month hibernation in a grumpy humor, much as he did in the first film. He’s hungry, but the cupboards are bare and his wallet is empty. Celestine (Pauline Brunner) fetches his violin, a rare and precious “Stradibearius,” thinking an impromptu concert might draw a crowd and earn them some coin. But she accidentally breaks the violin, to Ernest’s woe. Only one person can fix it: Octavius, a luthier who lives in Ernest’s homeland, Gibberitia. (The actual French name is “Charabia,” which a PR rep for the film translated as “gibberish,” explaining that the name “Gibberitia” was an attempt to localize the word for an English-speaking audience.)
For reasons Ernest won’t vocalize, he’d rather starve than go home. But Celestine’s guilt over the violin compels her to make the trip herself. Ernest, ever dutiful to his friend, catches up with her, and soon, they’re riding a gondola to his native country.
Something is rotten in the state of Gibberitia. Ernest, an enthusiastic and talented performer, talks the place up as a haven for music. But they find the city streets silent, apart from the bustling of the bear inhabitants. He and Celestine quickly find that tunes have been outlawed in Gibberitia, under what’s later revealed as “Ernestov’s Law.” Even songbirds trilling on tree branches are deemed to be violating this dictate; whenever birds start singing, the constabulary bears enforce the law against them. Before long, Ernest and Celestine are entangled in Gibberitia’s cultural turmoil, resisting the musical ban alongside the mysterious sax-swinging vigilante known as EFG.
Gibberitia’s legislators are clever, as authoritarians tend to be for the sake of covering their butts. Music isn’t outlawed. Notes are outlawed, except for C, as demonstrated in a literal one-note public performance Ernest and Celestine observe, played on a piano with a single key. Most Gibberitian citizens now see music as an affront to propriety. Naturally, Ernest resists, with predictable ursine stubbornness.
Ernest’s back-and-forth with local enforcers captures the way of authoritarian say-so, which is dishearteningly familiar for a contemporary audience. You can play music in Gibberitia, as long as you stick to the prescribed music, which is literally defined as one note. You can read these books, but not those books, if you live in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Utah, or Missouri, among other states that have recently banned books ranging from Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer to Mike Curato’s Flamer to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Reading isn’t illegal, according to the legislatures and local officials that keep trying to limit reading. It’s just illegal to read (or assign in classrooms, or buy for libraries) any books a few individuals deem indecent or obscene. And cutting off the public (and young people in particular) from easy, free access to books effectively keeps them out of people’s hands, which is the point of the 1,477 bans recorded since the 2022-2023 school year began.
Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia represents the practice of banning art as not only preposterous, but futile. The film holds contempt for authoritarian suppression tactics in one hand, and optimism in the other. While Chheng and Roger’s script, written by Guillaume Mautalent and Sébastien Oursel (and based on the beloved picture books by Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent), simplifies the details of authoritarianism by cutesifying the violence associated with its doctrines, they keep the most important pieces in place. Even Gibberitia’s visitors are subject to the anti-music ordinance. There’s no warning or leniency in the law, just immediate punishment without legal recourse.
Wisely, the filmmakers keep the focus here narrow and comedic while laying out the case against authoritarianism, and against personal tastes being allowed to dictate public policy. (The anti-music laws come from a single bear with a grudge and with too much unquestioned power.) They wisely don’t unpack the possibility that Gibberitia is similarly strict and arbitrary about other things as well, because the crackdown on music best embodies the cruel absurdity of authoritarian governance.
In Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia, the best response to that governance is spirited contempt and brazen opposition, captured by Chheng and Roger’s animation department through soft visual tones and a watercolor style. The settings and characters seem like they’ve been gently poured onto the frame, where they ripple into shape. Even the buildings suggest degrees of liveliness. The film’s vibrance goes hand in hand with pro-music protests that are one part cheeky and two parts resolute. When Ernest provokes Gibberitia’s law enforcement, EFG intervenes, stopping the doofus brigade dead in their tracks by turning her saxophone bell on them like a shotgun. They cower when Ernest starts swinging his bandoneon like nunchaku, prompting one to cry, “Look out! He’s about to solo!”
Comedy is a welcome release for the genuine harms couched in Gibberitia’s philistine precepts. Authoritarians are self-important, humorless fools. We should make fun of them and laugh at them. Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia encourages viewers to join in the mockery, but not at the expense of its central motif, because ripping on autocrats alone isn’t enough. A healthy dose of rebellion is necessary, too, whether they’re banning books or silencing music.
Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia opens in limited theatrical release on Sept. 1, and will expand over the next few weeks. See a list of participating theaters and dates on the movie’s website.