Memory is not a straight line. It’s not a movie that you can sit down and watch in perfect passive clarity. When a sound or a sight or a word conjures a memory of childhood, it’s a mass of sensations that comes swirling back. There are times when I feel the same passion, be it rage or sorrow or joy, as intensely as I did at the initial occurrence. There are times when it seems as though someone else lived through those traumas and triumphs, and I’m a silent witness to this distant person’s achievements.
The Little Prince is a work that has entranced and confounded readers for decades, inviting hundreds of interpretations. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s slim novel has an almost Rorschach blot quality, shifting meaning and intention based on whatever eye is doing the particular beholding. In telling the story of a downed aviator who meets a strange little boy, delivered from an asteroid by a flock of birds, de Saint-Exupery touched on everything from love to maturity to mortality to the inherent tragedy of aging.
The book has already been filmed at least once before, in a live-action ’70s picture that included the David-Lynch-on-mescaline bizarreness of Bob Fosse doing an interpretative dance number as a snake.
More recently, Mark Osborne (Spongebob Squarepants, Kung Fu Panda) rallied an all-star cast to deliver an independently produced animated version. Osborne’s Little Prince drew strong notices out of festivals and was picked up by Paramount for distribution, only to be dumped a week before it was due to play in theaters. Netflix snapped up the rights and released it last week.
Paramount’s loss is our gain. The Little Prince is as ambitious and moving an animated film as you as likely to see this year.
The Little Prince starts out following a young girl (Mackenzie Foy, the little girl you thought was a little boy in The Dark Knight Rises) anxiously preparing for the start of her prestigious new school. Dad long ago split and Mom (Rachel McAdams) is determined to ensure the girl is a success, planning out every moment of her life for the foreseeable future.
The plan hits a skid when the girl forms a close friendship with the loopy old man from next door, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges, still doing his mush-mouth thing, but toned down considerably). He begins giving her the pages of his story, which leads the film into the actual text of The Little Prince.
The “real world” stuff is beautifully rendered CGI, with a look that will be instantly familiar to anyone paying attention to studio animation for the last few years. The Minions could walk in at any point and you wouldn’t blink, know what I mean? But the The Little Prince sequences of The Little Prince are depicted using gorgeous stop motion animation, with I believe paper models used for the characters and backgrounds. It not only fits the ‘living illustration’ narrative, but it makes these sequences instantly memorable and distinctive. And the pointedly ersatz look of the world makes the dream-logic and almost poetic cadence of the characters much more palatable. With the quiet score by Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey underlining the recitation of Exupery’s words (I’m no expert, but most of the dialogue from these scenes appears to be taken word-for-word from that book), you sink into the gentle current of the story.
Osborne’s work on Panda and Squarepants may be identifiable by kinetic absurdist comedy (and there are some big, BIG comedic beats throughout this film), but there’s an ease with quiet in this film that feels utterly out of step with American cinema, animated or otherwise. Osborne’s camera is enamored by items like billowing sand, a floating butterfly, or even the soft twinkling of stars.
James Franco, Benicio del Toro, Marion Cotillard, and others don’t have gigantic roles, but they’re all keyed into the right tone, their voices perfectly suited to give life to each distinctive piece of the tapestry. Franco as The Fox gets many of the most iconic lines from the book, and his work is a nice reminder that behind the obnoxious art school provocateur is an actor who knows how to spin tremendous meaning from the simplest of lines.
The film cruises along that easy rhythm, right up until about an hour in, where they run out of story from the book. The second half takes a hard turn that the trailers don’t even hint at, so I will let you discover it for yourself. Suffice to say, The Little Prince expands far beyond the scope of the book in a way that oddly mirrors The Cursed Child’s own discussion of a new generation critiquing the original story.
I was deeply unsure of this choice, even with the guiding hand of Paul Rudd, beloved actor and possible Highlander. It’s a massive roll of the dice by Osborne, one that runs the risk of transforming his loving adaptation into fan fiction.
But Osborne pulls it off. The Little Prince becomes less an adaptation of the original book than a referendum as to why this story matters.
It works because Osborne understands the story, and because he embraces not only the whimsy of de Saint-Exupery’s imagination and language but also the anger and sadness that underscore it. The Little Prince may share a visual template and gag-style with standard kiddie fare, but there’s a deep melancholy and emotional honesty that feels worlds away from what we usually expect from family fare.
I’m not sure if the film will get the recognition it deserves on Netflix, but I sure hope it does. This is a film to be discovered and discussed, to grow and change with. This is a film to be seen young, so that it might plant seeds in your heart that blossom the more it lingers there. It’s been a few days since I watched the film and I keep coming back to images, moments, isolated sequences of words and music that linger long after the stars set on the screen.
Osborne and his terrific cast have done a great service, restoring The Prince to his place in the stars. Childhood remains in the past, a place locked away with a lost key. But memory and dream can bring you back to those shining days of pure wonder, and what else is a movie but memory and dream brought to life and placed on the screen for all to share?