Review: The Little Prince
By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
“Growing up isn’t the problem, forgetting is.” Although not a direct quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original book, this message perfectly encapsulates the enduring resonance of his story and is one of the most poignant lines of dialogue that has been added to The Little Prince.
Directed by Mark Osborne, this is a moving animated tribute to the beloved 1943 novella of the same name, using a duel narrative to tell both the original tale of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) from Asteroid B-612 who lands in the desert, which provides a touching backdrop for the new story of a Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) in Paris, who is scared of growing up.
Part of her problem is that she is being forced to grow up far too soon. She has just moved to a new neighbourhood with her overly ambitious mother (Rachel McAdams), so that they can be closer to a prestigious prep school, and her entire life is already mapped out on a daunting magnetic schedule board. All the houses on their street share the same identically drab design, except for the dilapidated structure next door that is home to an eccentric old Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who lives amidst the objects he has hoarded over his life and is trying desperately to fix his broken airplane in the backyard.
When a detached propeller smashes through their wall, the old man becomes an unlikely friend to the Little Girl, as he starts recounting the story of the Little Prince, who came to him after his plane crashed in the desert. The Aviator’s story sparks in her a childlike sense of imagination that she has never really been able to explore, as she hears of the different characters the Little Prince encountered on his journey, including the Rose (Marion Cotillard) he loved, the Fox (James Franco) he tamed, and the slithering Snake (Benicio Del Toro) who struck him a deal.
The book’s lyrical storytelling and poetic writing make it a hard one to properly adapt, but this version of The Little Prince succeeds not in being a literal retelling of the story, but rather as a study of what the fantastical tale comes to represent for this little girl. The film finds some really beautiful ways to pay tribute to the most famous elements of the source material, using the original story as a compelling through line to the new characters who make up much of the narrative framework, while drawing some fascinating parallels between the old and new.
Like in the book, the characters are all named by their defining traits. The Aviator is clearly meant to represent Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, himself a pilot during the war who crashed in the desert, portrayed as an adult who has retained his pension for childlike wonder and storytelling. The Little Girl provides a mirror to the Little Prince, and the Fox is represented by an adorable plush toy that she finds. The film works on several levels, but the heart of this story really is the charming friendship that develops between the Aviator and the Little Girl, perfectly voiced by Jeff Bridges and Mackenzie Foy.
The animation is beautiful throughout, switching between two distinct styles depending on which story we are in. Much of the film unfolds through beautifully rendered computer animation, with the scenes taken from the book being told through stop motion animation, using layered paper sets that give a wonderful sense of depth to these sequences and allow them to look as if they are lifted right out of the original illustrations. The use of colour is also worth noting, utilizing mostly grey tones to represent the stagnancy of the grownup world, and bringing in brighter hues when the Aviator is present in the story.
Shots of the perfectly square neighbourhood from above, with cars moving between the rows of identical houses in quite literal gridlock, heavily recall Jacques Tati’s Playtime in their inventiveness and satirical depiction of modern life. The skyscrapers and cookie cutter houses that dot the landscape are alluded to being like the baobab tree that threatens to overrun the Little Prince’s asteroid, things of the grownup world that can quickly grow out of hand and choke out sunlight and imagination. Even the squareness of the Little Girl’s neighbourhood rests in stark contrast to the roundness of the asteroids.
Without giving too much away, the last act expands on and deviates most from the source material, focusing on the Little Girl’s own interpretation of the story and how she relates it to her own life. Some completists may have mixed feelings about the dystopic dreamscape of this last act, and a little more time could have been spent in the stop motion world of the original story. But the essence of the book is still very much intact, as are the metaphors of social conformity and adult shortcomings that have made the story such a timeless classic. The messages of accepting loss and letting go are also not shied away from here, as the film approaches the themes of death in an honest and hopeful way.
The lessons that the Little Prince taught to the Aviator are now being passed back down to this Little Girl, representing a passing of the torch between older generations who loved the book and younger readers who are just discovering it. The book’s ability to reach moments of profound wisdom and emotional clarity is not lost onscreen, and The Little Prince does a beautiful job of paying tribute to the classic novella, keeping all of the life lessons and heartbreaking emotion still intact. It’s a tender and touching film, lovingly animated and rich with sweetly endearing characters and deeply poignant messages.