Since its 1943 publication, the novella “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery has become a children’s classic the world over. The tale of a downed aviator who meets a small monarch who lives on an asteroid and fell in love with a rose is universally beloved, but the strange, semi-allegorical nature of the book means that a truly satisfying screen translation has never been made (Stanley Donen’s 1974 musical version is perhaps the best known). This new animated feature is intended to be the definitive film rendition. Made with French money by Canadian animators, directed by American helmer Mark Osborne (“Kung Fu Panda”), and featuring a glittering cast of voice actors, it’s not quite successful enough to succeed on the that score, but it’s still a visually glorious, extremely moving film that proves that top-grade animated fare doesn’t just come from the U.S. or Japan.
After a traditionally-drawn opening that mirrors the book, we’re dropped into a CGI world where The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy from “Interstellar”) is taking a final entrance interview to enter a prestigious school. She’s encouraged by her workaholic Mother (Rachel McAdams), who has her daughter’s path to adulthood planned out virtually by the minute (“you’re going to be a wonderful grown-up,” she tells her). It’s only a few weeks until summer ends and The Little Girl is supposed to be studying, but she soon finds a distraction in The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), her eccentric, elderly neighbor who has an old plane in his backyard. He tells her the story of how he met the Little Prince (Riley Osborne, the director’s son —awwww), and of all the strange characters that the Prince knew: the Rose (Marion Cotillard), the Snake (Benicio Del Toro), the Fox (James Franco), the Conceited Man (Ricky Gervais), the King (Bud Cort) and the Businessman (Albert Brooks), who seeks to own the stars.
Given the narrative slightness of Saint-Exupery’s source material, any feature-length version will need some expansion. That said, Osborne’s film could be re-edited into a stand-alone film of half an hour or so and it would be just about perfect. It’s incredibly faithful to the book, retaining much of the language (the drawings from the book are also used at various points), reflecting the melancholy tone of the story while remaining quite charming. It’s also extremely well crafted, using both CGI and stop-motion elements in different sections of the film, resulting in some extremely beautiful images. The look of the film might pass muster with fans of the book, but the story itself is likely to be controversial, introducing new themes, new characters, and adventure elements that give it more mainstream and modern sensibilities.
Even given the bright, shiny animation, this film is still more GKIDS than “Madagascar,” and Osborne (along with “The Boxtrolls” writer Irena Brignull and DreamWorks veteran Bob Persichetti, who penned the script) do a good job at extrapolating the book’s themes —loss, remembrance, acceptance— into a new story. Indeed, one of the most moving moments of the film includes a payoff that had audience members, me included, more than a little weepy. And the voice-casting is about perfect. McAdams finds the right note of nuance to stop the Mother from becoming an uptight monster, Bridges does a superior riff on the cantankerous coot he’s been defaulting to recently, and Foy, fast turning into a very special talent, absolutely nails the lead role.
Which is not to say “The Little Prince” is not without issues. Specifically, the start of the third act introduces rollicking adventure that the film had previously shied away from, and ill-advisedly introduces a grown-up version of the Prince (Paul Rudd). Surely, it pays into the film’s biggest theme of worrying about “forgetting” childhood, but its jarring when the film’s been so respectful to the source material otherwise, and feels like a rare wrong turn. However, Osborne does remarkably well. The book is so counter to our contemporary narrative demands that liberties would need to be taken for a movie version, and for the most part Osborne takes the right liberties, ending up with an extremely beautiful, very charming, thematically rich take that’s sure to be one of the better animated movies this year. [B+]