Dirs: Benjamin Renner, Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar. France-Belgium-Luxembourg. 2012. 80mins

A delightful melding of visual style and narrative pirouettes, Ernest And Célestine is a just-about-perfect hand drawn animated feature. The unlikely but eventually rock solid alliance between gruff bear Ernest and artistically inclined orphan mouse Célestine is loaded with charm and adventure without a speck of smarm. The central characters have hopes and fears, setbacks and small triumphs to which viewers of any age can relate. This elegantly paced, sometimes dark and frequently funny animated treat should be embraced worldwide.

The result, four years in the making, is superlative visual storytelling.

First-time director Benjamin Renner, whose pared down expressiveness with a sketch landed him the assignment fresh out of animation school, proves himself an excellent choice to translate the spirit of late writer-and-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent’s children’s books to the screen. Vincent’s watercolour backgrounds and pen and ink characters have a bespoke charm that’s hard to resist.

Renner is backed up by Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, the Belgian pair behind the stop-action delight A Town Called Panic and the antics of Pic Pic and André. The result, four years in the making, is superlative visual storytelling.

In the barracks of an orphanage run with ferocious discipline, Célestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) makes drawings and listens to the harrowing bedtime story of the Big Bad Bear. In the mouse-filled universe nestled under city streets, nothing is more terrifying than the tale of a hungry bear who eats mice.

All the mice know that mice and bears can never, ever, get along. Yet smart and sweetly optimistic Célestine has dared to draw the outline of a bear cradling a mouse. Meanwhile, Ernest (voiced by Lambert Wilson) is hibernating in his cottage but awakens famished, starving and really, really hungry.

Célestine escapes from the orphanage and comes close to being a snack for Ernest, but their wildly different personalities and respective talents turn out to be perfectly complementary. They both have nightmares, rendered with genuine creative sparks.

Ernest is a performer at heart, but the police confiscate his musical gear. When the duo burglarise an unusual local business, neither will snitch under pressure. Episodes spanning several seasons emphasise loyalty, teamwork and other salutary values but do so via bursts of crankiness and impatience in the face of obstacles and unfairness. Ernest and Célestine go up against adversarial forces, using their ingenuity to change the status quo.

The French voice talent is superb. Perfectly bilingual Lambert Wilson will be reprising the role of Ernest in the English-language dub. Vincent Courtois’ score boasts exactly the sort of melodic excellence young ears should be exposed to. Gabrielle Vincent, who died in 2000, was vehemently opposed to television or film adaptations of her Ernest And Célestine books, which spanned some 20 volumes. One suspects she would have approved of this one.

Production companies: Les Armateurs, Maybe Movies, StudioCanal, France 3 Cinema, La Parti Production, Mélusine Productions, RTBF

International sales: StudioCanal, www.studiocanal-distribution.com

Producers: Didier Brunner, Philippe Kaufmann, Vincent Tavier, Stéphan Roelants, Henri Magalon

Screenplay: Daniel Pennac, inspired by the books by Gabrielle Vincent

Production designers: Zaza & Zyk

Editors: Fabienne Alvarez-Giro

Music: Vincent Courtois

Main cast: (voices) Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner