Imagine my delight at learning of a new animated movie based on French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved 1943 novella, The Little Prince, a book I’ve cherished since I was a kid. For the uninitiated, it’s the touching tale of a pilot who crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert. There, he meets a young boy who says he comes from a planetoid in the heavens, has fallen to Earth, and must return to his home amid the stars to nurture a rose that will die without his ministrations.
The English-language voice cast assembled for the motion picture was impressive, with talented actors including Jeff Bridges, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais, and Paul Giamatti on board. Not too shabby. And it was directed by Mark Osborne, who helmed the wildly successful Kung-Fu Panda, still my favorite in the Dreamworks Animation catalog. That was more good news.
Yes, there was a live-action feature adaptation in 1974, not particularly memorable despite being directed by the great Stanley Donen, best known for such timeless films as Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and Charade. There was also a short Little Prince cartoon done in 1979 by Claymation wizard Will Vinton. And the French did an animated TV series inspired by the book, running from 2010–13. But Osborne’s version was a widescreen feature mixing the latest in CGI with stop-motion animation.
AN UNEXPECTED DETOUR
The Little Prince was set for worldwide release starting in France last July with distribution over much of the globe by Paramount Pictures, whose Paramount Animation wing co-produced the movie along with France’s Orange Studio and a few more partners. Sure enough, it rolled out in most of the targeted countries during the rest of the year — except the United States.
Paramount apparently had cold feet, and took the movie off of its 2015 U.S. schedule. Instead, it rescheduled the release for spring 2016, only to drop it as a theatrical presentation at the last minute. Happily, Netflix picked up The Little Prince for its streaming service, starting Aug. 5, and will launch a run in North American theaters on the same day, so stateside fans will finally be able to see it on the big screen (or a smaller one).
In literary form, this gentle yet stirring fable is considered a national treasure and a must-read for the young in France, where Saint-Exupery is seen in heroic terms and was even featured on the country’s pre-Euro 50 franc note (along with the Little Prince himself, and two other images from the book, as well as a few lines of text in anticounterfeit micro-print). I first encountered the Aviator, the Prince, and the rest of the story’s archetypal characters when I was in high-school French class. I was charmed.
Some might call it a little sparse on the plot side. It’s a very slim volume, albeit decorated with a number of evocative line drawings by the author, but there is great beauty in its simplicity and its central message: What is most essential in life is invisible to the eye. There are other themes inherent in The Little Prince, among them the value of friendship and loyalty, the pettiness of vanity, greed, and prejudice that can come with adulthood, and the rewards of braving the unknown in the interest of discovery and personal growth.
BUILDING ON A CLASSIC
To expand on Saint-Exupery’s book and fill out a movie, Osborne and his collaborators created a computer-animated framing story wherein a bright little girl and her mother — a buttoned-up single mom — move into a new home in a modern, architecturally bland suburban neighborhood. Mom’s mission is to get her daughter into the best school in the area, which will require mature, disciplined preparation on the part of the child. The girl is on track until her regimen is derailed by the eccentricities of the elderly aviator living in the ramshackle house next door. The old man tells the girl about his desert encounter with a strange visitor from beyond, showing her a journal depicting the adventure. And that’s where the source material is realized via the stop-motion technique, beautifully breathing life into Saint-Exupery’s drawings and achieving a neat visualization of the dichotomy between book and movie. Eventually, the girl’s world and the Little Prince’s world intersect.
Although there will be those who consider the additions to this iconic property as tantamount to heresy, it’s done quite respectfully and artfully. The movie stays true to the book’s philosophical core, even as the script thrusts the girl into an investigation of the Little Prince’s existence beyond what we’re told in Saint-Exupery’s words.
Paramount honchos have been quiet about the decision to dump the feature in the United States, which is odd since it was greeted with generally favorable reviews overseas and had already earned over $100 million when the hammer dropped. Paramount’s French division had no compunction about putting it out in France. Maybe the American powers that be couldn’t get behind something that’s adored in Europe and not particularly mainstream here. That’s a pity. Taken on its own terms, the latest attempt to bring The Little Prince to the screen is a lovely, thoughtful and sincere accomplishment that deserves an audience on these shores. It now has a chance to find one.