Tiny Animated Film ‘Ernest & Celestine’ Takes On Disney and DreamWorks at Oscars — WSJ

Didier Brunner, producer of Ernest & Célestine knows what it’s like to run up against the big Hollywood animation studios at the Oscars, but that hasn’t thwarted his enthusiasm for the genre. Robin Kawakami tells us why this could be the year of the underdog.

By now, producer Didier Brunner is accustomed to being the underdog in the Oscar race for best animated feature. His Triplets of Belleville lost to Pixar’s Finding Nemo in 2003, and The Secret of Kells lost to Disney/Pixar’s Up in 2009. (The Old Lady and the Pigeons also lost to Pixar in the animated short category back in 1998.)

Brunner learned that Ernest & Célestine is the latest Oscar nod for his production company, Les Armateurs. “My assistant came into my office and said, ‘We’re nominated! We’re nominated!’” he told Speakeasy in a phone call from Paris.

Ernest & Célestine, directed by Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, is based on characters from books by Belgian writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent. “We asked a very famous French novelist, Daniel Pennac, to invent an original story with those two characters,” said Brunner. The result is a film about two creatures who come from very different worlds—a mouse and a bear—and form an unlikely bond. Brunner confirmed it will open in U.S. theaters in March after the Oscars.

The French producer originally proposed the film to Renner, who was just beginning his film career out of school, after seeing the young director’s first short film La Queue de la Souris (“A Mouse’s Tale”). “He was very afraid to do, alone, the direction of a film, which is a long feature,” said Brunner, who then proposed adding Aubier and Patar to the project on the recommendation of a Belgian producer. The directors were given one month to try and work together and develop a storyboard. “The result was so rich and constructive and creative between the three guys,” said Brunner, “that we decided to make the film with three directors.”

The filmmakers face formidable competition this year: Disney’s Frozen, DreamWorks’s The Croods, Universal Pictures’ Despicable Me 2 — as well as The Wind Rises, the final film from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. “I feel like little Tom Thumb,” said Brunner. “I’m an outsider.”

Even at the height of the film’s production, Brunner said the team consisted of only 50 to 60 people, including 30 animators and 10 assistant animators. And though he credits the big animation studios as “being more efficient than us,” he is happy to be in the race.

Brunner also credits GKIDS, their American distributor, with lobbying effectively for the film. GKIDS also proposed several American actors for dubbing the film in English. The process of casting, plus voice work, took three to four months, he said.

Still, Brunner is tempering expectations. “We have very, very little chance, but we believe in the film and the capacity of the film to seduce the academy,” he said. “And of course, we will attend the Oscar ceremony with the heart beating very strongly.”

As for what’s next, Brunner has three projects in the works. The first is an animation for adults adapted from the French bestseller The Swallows of Kabul,” which tells the story of two wives in Afghanistan who are condemned to jail because they don’t want to obey the rules under the Taliban. The second is called French Riviera, which Brunner describes as a thriller and a comedy. And the third is called Marzi, about a young girl in Poland during the fall of Communism.

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