'The Little Prince'
Antoine de Saint-Expery’s ‘The Little Prince’ is one of those endlessly endearing and enduring classics of children’s literature more suited to the page than the screen. Surreal, imaginative, satirical and unconventionally structured, it doesn’t really suit the classical three act structure of family friendly cinematic storytelling.
Sure, there was a delightfully wacko 1970s adaptation from Stanley Donan, but even that suffered from the fact that the story was simply too short for feature length expansion, even with a variety of musical numbers crammed in. This latest adaptation independently produced by director Mark Osborne (‘Kung Fu Panda’, ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’) takes an unexpected approach of framing the original story within a new narrative. Purists will likely scoff and make claims of Disneyfication. Those who take the movie on its own terms might be surprised by what Osborne has delivered. While it’s not purely ‘The Little Prince’, it’s a rather beautiful creation nonetheless.
Mackenie Foy voices the protagonist, who is only named The Little Girl. She’s a hard Type A personality, living a life of overachievement that has been rigidly scheduled down to the minutes of each day by her overbearing (if loving) mother (Rachel McAdams). One day while working through her various tasks, the Little Girl is distracted by her neighbor, an elderly man (Jeff Bridges) attempting to launch a plane from his backyard. The girl leaves her house to investigate and the old man reveals himself to be the Aviator from ‘The Little Prince’. In fact, he’s written his story about crashing on a desert planet (illustrated with Saint-Expery’s original drawings) and shares it with the young girl.
Through their visits, viewers are treated to a condensed version of ‘The Little Prince’ complete with an all-star voice cast, including Ricky Gervais as The Conceited Man (naturally) and Albert Brooks as The Business Man. Through the Aviator’s bizarrely beautiful tales, the Little Girl leans to abandon her rigid life and embrace the freedom of childish imagination. Yes, it’s one of those stories, and eventually both worlds collide in a rather wonderful way.
The most striking element of this ‘Little Prince’ is the aesthetic. For the overarching “reality” plot line, Osborne used CGI with all the sharp focus, strong lines and digital perfectionism that implies. For the scenes pulled from the book, he switches to stop motion animation. More specifically, the sequences seem to be designed with paper puppets and have a charmingly handmade quality (though obviously on a massive scale) that replicates Saint-Expery’s original drawings in a 3D space. The effect draws a stark line between the two worlds while also imbuing the fantasy sequences with a certain air of European experimental animation that suits the somewhat abstract and decidedly surreal story rather well. I’m sure you could read a certain commentary into the film about how the oversaturated CGI gloss of mainstream animation detracts from the more expressive forms of the art, but that might be reading a little too deeply into things.
The voice cast is rather perfectly assigned to type. Osborne admirably chooses character actors suited to the specific roles rather than celebrities suited to marketing. Each character has been carefully designed to express its personality visually and the voices match rather exquisitely. The decision to reframe Saint-Expery’s old tale through a new story about the importance of embracing imagination and the goofy freedoms of childhood works far better than it should.
‘The Little Prince’ is such a uniquely bizarre tale that captures a certain brand of childhood imagination so well that it fits into Osborne’s grand design without ever losing the original charms. The film also remains admirably ambiguous about whether or not the events of the book actually took place in the world of the film. It gives viewers of all ages a chance to interpret for themselves in a manner rarely slipped into family films. The emotional pull of the new story packs an impressive punch even if it’s somewhat derivative of a variety of previous movies as varied as ‘E.T.’ and ‘Up’.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this edition of ‘The Little Prince’ is that it proves big, sweeping, beautiful animated features needn’t be limited to studio products. The film emerged outside of the Hollywood system, and even though it’s designed as a crowd-pleaser, it’s refreshingly devoid of the predictable house style animation and narrative tricks that viewers expect from a DreamWorks, Disney or even Pixar product. The only real drawback is that for the sake of reaching a broad audience, ‘The Little Prince’ ultimately tells a story that’s been told many times before, rather than embracing the pure poetry and expressionism of Antoine de Saint-Expery’s original book.
Those hoping for a pure adaptation will continue to wait. However, those willing to take Mark Osborne’s story on its own terms will be surprised by the imagination and beauty flowing off the screen. (Yes, even the 3D adds to the experience.) If multiplexes are destined to be filled with animated features for the foreseeable future, it would be nice for some screens to be dedicated to independent and artistically adventurous productions like this. Kids like that stuff too, I swear!