Film Review: The Little Prince

This inventive adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s book is beautifully realized in CG and stop-motion animation techniques.
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In the opening pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (1900-1944) beloved children’s book, The Little Prince, a boy describes his first attempts at drawing. Adults mistake his sketch of a boa constrictor, his mid-section bloated from a recent meal, for a brown hat. Because “they always need to have things explained,” the boy decides to draw the exposed insides of the snake while it was eating its prey, after which the grown-ups advise him to put aside art in order to study geography and arithmetic. The boy grows up to become an aviator and a world traveler; at some point, he accidentally crash-lands his plane in the desert. There, he meets an unusual boy named The Little Prince.

Mark Osborne’s animated film, inspired by The Little Prince, begins just as the novel does, except this time an adolescent girl’s life is close to being sidetracked by her single mom. Mother (Rachel McAdams) insists that geometry and physics, and admission to a top-notch school, are the path to becoming a successful grown-up. When The Little Girl, voiced by Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar), fails her oral admissions exam, Mom moves them to another school district with a good public school. In their new home, their next-door neighbor is an elderly pilot and the local eccentric, voiced by Jeff Bridges. He has a story to tell, and an airplane to repair.

The French author’s quirky tale, inspired by his own crash-landing in the Rum Desert of Jordan, unfolds as it would through the eyes of a reader, in this case, The Little Girl. She befriends The Aviator, and he slowly unearths his “notes,” a diary of his encounter with The Little Prince (the director’s son, Riley Osborne). That meeting is seen in flashback in the film, and it is about how the boy wandered the universe in search of a home because his asteroid was in danger of being consumed by a baobab tree. (Saint-Exupéry’s monstrous baobab tree is the “tree of life” in many African cultures.) He recounts to The Aviator his exploration of the desert’s flora and fauna, including his conversations with The Snake (Benicio Del Toro) and the wise Fox (James Franco).

One flaw in the film’s narrative is its handling of the meeting between The Little Prince and The Snake, whose purpose is not explained as well as it should be: de Saint-Exupéry’s serpent is the one of legend. As creatures who shed their skin, snakes, dragons and sea monsters represent transformation, not necessarily physical death, as is implied in The Little Prince. These mythic creatures appear to heroes near the end of their journeys. One shot of The Snake slithering over The Little Prince’s body is a somewhat sexualized image, and one that does not appear in the book. While that allusion will escape the notice of young viewers, The Snake’s role in The Little Prince’s demise will not.

The Little Prince’s central theme is articulated by The Fox, as it is in the novel: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Of course, only children, and those rare adults with child sensibilities, are capable of seeing “rightly.” Screenwriters Irena Brignull (The Boxtrolls) and Bob Persichetti (Puss in Boots), who appear to rely on the novel’s most poetic translation by Katherine Woods, do a fine job with a movie that is aimed at the middle-school child, rather than the little ones. Having said that, CG animation that makes great use of color, and stop-motion animation by Jamie Caliri and Alex Juhasz, with many puppets cleverly constructed from paper, result in a movie that is an eyeful for all audiences.

Sadly, at this writing, The Little Prince, which is best seen on the big screen, will have only a brief and limited theatrical release; it was abruptly dropped by Paramount before its scheduled release in March. Most will see it streaming on Netflix.

Not unlike Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Little Girl falls down the “rabbit hole,” that of The Aviator’s world of a previous century. At first, she resists, even though the ramshackle woodframe presents an inviting change from their sleek cement blockhouse. Delightful production design by Lou Romano contrasts the gray interiors of The Little Girl’s study from the colorful jumble of objects in The Aviator’s living room, mementos of his unconventional life. Then, The Aviator tries to fly his airplane and it crashes; falling debris breaches the fence that separates the two properties. Afterward, a paper airplane drifts through The Little Girl’s window; it is the first page of The Aviator’s astonishing diary. That is when she escapes through the fissure, and realizes that her new friend is very frail.

In de Saint-Exupéry’s book, as in all myths and legends about men, The Aviator’s life-altering experience in the desert occurred in mid-life. The Little Prince led The Aviator to return to his childhood ambitions of drawing and storytelling. The film’s structure of a story within a story, that of The Aviator and The Little Prince, and The Aviator and The Little Girl, is deftly handled, and adds the wonderful story of The Little Girl’s own quest for identity. Osborne’s film is not the first cinematic adaptation of de Saint-Exupéry’s novel. Stanley Donen directed the 1974 Lerner & Loewe musical The Little Prince, with Gene Wilder in a memorable role as The Fox. (It was distributed by Paramount Pictures.) While the music is very good in that straightforward adaptation, Hans Zimmer’s score for this movie is enchanting. At times a musical translation of timelessness, it also transports the viewer to the core of de Saint-Exupéry’s desire to cling to his childhood wisdom.

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