There’s much to love in the latest adaptation of the beloved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella “The Little Prince”, an animated marvel by Mark Osborne, whose “Kung Fu Panda” (the original) was more visually inventive than you might remember.
A stunning blend of styles, from hand-drawn sketches to computer-assisted visuals with flashbacks made in gorgeous, textured stop-motion animation with models and tactile sets, it does justice to the book while updating its messages for contemporary audiences.
It’s also as easy to see why no studio figured it would find enough of an American audience to be worth putting in theaters. It comes direct-to-Netflix in the U.S., after having been a modest hit overseas. Stripped of much of its allegorical context, it is more of a children’s story than ever. But it’s a bit dry and somber for that audience, without nearly as much for adults to chew upon as the book.
A fable written by a French pilot and expat who fled his country after it surrendered to Nazi Germany, the book has invited graduate student dissection for 70 years.
The film is framed in a contemporary story, a little girl (the voice of Mackenzie Foy) and her stressed-out single mom (voiced by Rachel McAdams) fail to get into the Werth Academie, where “worth” is measured by one killer entrance examination question.
“What will you be when you grow up?”
The answer? “Essential,” as practiced and preached by the Werth headmaster (Paul Giamatti).
The over-scheduling “life plan” Mom moves them to a boxy suburb filled with modernist box houses and shrubs chopped into boxes for a summer of cramming for another shot at Werth. But the one house available sits next to a high-gabled ruin where a whimsically eccentric aviator (Jeff Bridges) resides.
He interrupts their plans by flinging a paper airplane through little Violet’s window. It’s the first page from an illustrated book, “The Little Prince,” about the aviator’s encounter, after a long-ago plane crash in the desert, with a bracing, inquisitive little boy from another planet. She rejects it, at first.
“That’s OK,” Bridges’ best old-man voice says in comfort.”Nobody understands it anyway.”
But eventually Violet, as such tales dictate, simply must hear more about this Little Prince, about the stuffed fox (James Franco) who was his friend, about The Rose (Marion Cotillard of “La Vie en Rose”), the Snake (Benicio del Toro).
This slow and somewhat stately cartoon reminds me of the recent animated version of Kahlil Gibran’s poetic novel “The Prophet,” a last-ditch attempt to capture the magic in a meditative, allegorical and philosophical book by using that most malleable art form — animation.
“It is only with the heart that one can see right,” the aviator lectures. The body “is but a shell.” “What is most important is what is invisible.” The words of a writer whose country has fallen to a great evil, whose world is under threat, seeking solace in the garret of the mind.
The flashbacks, telling the story of meeting the prince and his visits to various other planetoids, where he learns life lessons, are simple and simply lovely examples of the stop-motion animated art. The contemporary story points the child away from life’s “essentials” — which her mother, The Businessman (Albert Brooks) and others hammer into her.
What is life once we’ve lost that child’s sense of wonder? Pretty empty, the aviator intones. Bridges was a good choice, as this character narrates the film as well.
“Grownups — they never understand anything by themselves.” They have forgotten “all about being a child.”
It was all more original when the book, translated into every language and still a best-seller, was new. Not so much any more.
Its remaining messages and its very style make “The Little Prince” more a nostalgia piece for adults than anything your kids would clamor to see and demand Happy Meals toys from. But Osborne’s film has its rewards, many of them our memories filling in what has been thinned out.
And in a weak year for adventurous original animation, it could compete with “Zootopia” for an Oscar, and actually have a shot.
MPAA Rating:PG for mild thematic elements
Cast: The voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd, Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, James Franco, Benicio del Toro
Credits: Directed by Mark Osborne, script by Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti, based on the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella. A Netflix/Paramount release.
Running time: 1:48