In the dedication of his immensely beloved 1943 novella, “The Little Prince,” author and aristocrat (and aviator) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry made a passing remark that succinctly captured the soul of his story: “All grown-ups were children first (but few of them remember it).” While the unique locations and landscapes of Saint Exupéry’s tale might seem to resist adaptation — this is, after all, a narrative that splits its time between the Sahara Desert and a galaxy of tiny asteroids suspended in the stars — there’s a good reason why it’s been reimagined as everything from an opera, to a ballet, a stage play, an anime, a pop-up book, a graphic novel, a television series and a rather terrible live-action film by “Singin’ in the Rain” director Stanley Donen. Despite a multitude of logistical hurdles, the fundamental essence of “The Little Prince” is so pure that the narrative has proven capable of surviving any kind of transformation so long as that kernel of truth remains intact.
Now, “The Little Prince” has been reimagined once again, this time as an independently financed $80 million movie that sandwiches a hyper-literal telling of Saint-Exupéry’s novella (told via 2D stop-motion craftwork) into an elaborate framing device that uses CG animation (in the style of Dreamworks) to sell the classic on a contemporary audience.
Produced in Paris and Montreal and helmed by “Kung Fu Panda” director Mark Osborne, this singular, star-studded and fiercely surreal adaptation shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it (almost) holds together because of its steadfast dedication to the idea expressed in that of its source material. Even at its wildest moments, even when the movie flies so far off the reservation that it seems to have more in common with “Super Mario Galaxy” than it does a landmark of children’s literature, “The Little Prince” never loses sight of Saint-Exupéry’s most urgent message: “Growing up isn’t the problem, forgetting is.”
The film begins almost identically to the novella, as a wizened old narrator (voiced by Jeff Bridges, natch) reflects on his peculiar childhood drawings, calling special attention to the literal-minded adults who rejected his imagination. From there, things take a sharp left turn into new material, as the script (by “The Boxtrolls” writer Irena Brignull) puts a pin in “The Little Prince” and shifts its attention to a dystopian metropolis that looks like a computer chip when seen from above. It’s there, in that thoroughly modern city of straight lines and stringent school admissions tests, where an unnamed 8-year-old girl (Mackenzie Foy) is struggling to make sense of the life plan that her mother (Rachel McAdams) has laid out for her — amusingly, it accounts for every minute of her future.
But there’s hope in this brave new world. For the Little Girl, it comes in the form of the wacky old hoarder (Bridges) who lives in the house next door. A retired Aviator who still keeps the rusted remnants of a propeller plane in his backyard, the Little Girl’s neighbor has a half-forgotten story that he’s desperate to tell — in our heroine, he’s finally found the perfect audience. The story the Aviator tells the Little Girl is that of the Little Prince, Osborne’s film ditching the soulless CG animation of the framing device in favor of painstakingly tactile puppetry (an almighty diss to today’s de rigueur digital technique, which is properly contextualized here as a sterile corporate aesthetic bereft of imagination).
You might remember how it goes: Once upon a time, the Aviator crashed in the desert, where he crossed paths with a Little Prince (Riley Osborne, the director’s son) who came from a tiny planet and was lovesick over a rose (Marion Cotillard). Using stop-motion to faithfully recreate the look and feel of the novella’s watercolor illustrations, the film plows through the events of Saint-Exupéry’s text, following the Little Prince as he hops from planet to planet, meeting all sorts of greedy men and ominous animals (voiced by the likes of Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks, James Franco and Benicio del Toro) as he scours the heavens for meaning. What can we hold on to in a world where nothing can truly be owned?
It’s striking how little Saint-Exupéry’s free-associative story has in common with the entertainments on which kids are raised in the 21st century, and Osborne’s film retreats back to its framing device whenever the source material’s philosophical musings threaten to mute out the plot. “The Little Prince” is abstract enough as it is, and it can be hard to piece together when you’re forced to drop the thread every few minutes. Children may be capable of far more than we give them credit for, but it’s hard to gauge their patience for koans like “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” On the page, such dreamy thoughts feel like a first language, but here — despite Osborne’s tremendous efforts to acclimate kids to the 20th Century parable — the film’s modes seem in competition with one another.
At least it’s a fair fight. Shifting the novella’s grim ending into the “real world,” Osborne’s adaptation certainly tries to make the newly invented bits hold their own. It’s hard to believe where the film goes in its final 30 minutes, shifting from Jacques Tati to Terry Gilliam (and throwing Paul Rudd into the mix) as it churns all of its various morals into a stew of crazy developments, all of the increasingly bonkers visual splendor geared towards selling the idea that “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
It’s all a bit counterintuitive, but it works because even (or especially) the movie’s craziest moments are geared towards the idea that the heroine’s world is an unnatural place. We are born with imagination, we learn how to live without it. “The Little Prince” is probably too opaque for children, and it’s definitely too strained for adults, but it’s still refreshing to see a movie that flies with the untamed, sometimes illogical creative impulses of its target audiences. It doesn’t solve the problem of most contemporary animation, but it does perfectly diagnose it: “Grown-ups, they never understand anything by themselves.”
“The Little Prince” opens in theaters and on Netflix on Friday, August 5.