“What makes a good children’s book?…The Little Prince, which is a fascinating fable for grown-ups [is] of conjectural value for boys and girls of 6, 8 and 10. [It] may very well be a book on the order of Gulliver’s Travels, something that exists on two levels” –John Chamberlain, New York Times Book Review, 1943
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a book that needs little introduction. It’s the best selling book of the 20th century and one of the best selling books of all time, so if you’re reading this review, you’ve likely already read it. The book has a unique appeal to both children and adults, functioning as both a fairy tale and fable, something to be taken at face value as a whimsical fantasy and as a metaphorical examination of how people view growing up and adulthood. There have been numerous attempts at adapting the book to film, the most well known being the 1974 live action version starring Richard Kiley. While this version has its merits (in particular an excellent performance by Gene Wilder as the fox), ever since I read the novel I longed for an animated version (not counting the anime from 1978, which was mostly just episodic original stories using the Little Prince character). Animation opens the palate of creativity to nearly infinite potential; anything that can be drawn can be shown on screen while offering a willing suspension of disbelief as animation does not necessarily intend to mirror reality. In addition, in the west animation tends to be associated with children’s programing, so the format of an animated film would serve as a similar veil to Saint-Exupery’s messages for adults as the guise of a children’s book.
When the trailer came out for the 2015 film, it was evident that this adaptation would include a frame story that highlighted the themes of how adults were strangely obsessed with being “productive” and how childhood can be lost in that obsession. While I was initially worried that the movie wouldn’t be adapted “straight” from the source material, I realized that the 83 page English paperback would be hardly enough to fill a feature length film (unless they added original songs like the 1973 version). The premise looked promising as a new take on a classic tale. It took a while for me to actually get around to watching the movie as the US theatrical release was suddenly canceled by Paramount a week before its scheduled release date. Netflix later rescued the film’s US distribution and released it on their online streaming platform in August of 2016. My sister and I wanted to watch the movie together, but couldn’t find an opportune time until Thanksgiving weekend, and after months of waiting, the movie spoiled me with one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen.
The Little Prince’s production value is nothing short of amazing. It combines both CG animation and stop motion, both conveying the moods of their respective scenes perfectly. The CG allows for both the clean sterile appearance of the suburbs as well as the colorful and bright flashiness of the city, while the stop motion used in the flashbacks depict the raw desolate environments of the Sahara while also illustrating the hazy ambiguity of memory. Director Mark Osborne (director of modern classics such as Kung Fu Panda) had the perfect balance between when to be minimalistic and when to be detailed. The animation also showcased a great variety of scenes from action to slice of life to emotional drama. Human characters have advanced incredibly far in the past decade of CG animation to the point where a full range of emotion is depictable through facial expression alone without the plastic limitations of some earlier works. The animation alone really made me wish that the movie had a proper 3D theatrical release; I doubt that my small 23” computer monitor or even the family’s 60” HDTV can do a movie with such exquisite artistic detail justice. While still on the topic of production value, I wish to make a passing comment on the music. I’ve made fun of Hans Zimmer in the past among friends for being a burnt out has been who is only recruited for movies because he’ll take any job, and every Hollywood blockbuster wants that Inception BWAH in its soundtrack. It’s mostly a joke at this point; I know that Hans Zimmer is an accomplished musician who’s composed score for everything from Rain Man to Kung Fu Panda 3 so it shouldn’t surprise me that the soundtrack has an epic yet almost classy sound. Many tracks are generic for an animated children’s film, but there’s a few tracks (particularly the ones originally in French like Suis Moi and Le Tour de France en Diligence) that give the soundtrack its own characteristic identity.
Although the animation and music create an incredible viewing experience, the cores of most movies are the characters and story. In the spirit of the novel, the majority of the characters in the movie aren’t named, simply credited as “the little girl” and “the aviator.” I’m glad that even the framing tale kept this convention as it preserves the story as a fable. Everyone knows the story of the Little Prince; and this story was told basically word for word during the “story within a story” flashback segments. The original parts are the tale of the girl who’s hearing the story of the aviator for the first time and taking the lessons of the story in a very direct and real way. While the idea of “remember to remain a kid while you can” is certainly not the most original plot, especially for children’s films, the movies’ integration of the novel allowed for one of the best tellings of that message to be retold again for a new generation. The voice acting by the veteran cast was excellent as expected, especially Jeff Bridges as the aviator. My only minor complaint about the story was the third act “dream sequence” where I felt like the sudden move towards action and clear “good vs. evil” didn’t fit with the rest of the movie. It was still well done and entertaining for all ages, but it certainly had that “kids’ movie” feel to it, where the bad guy needed to be defeated and the main character needed a happy ending. It wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it didn’t clash with the tone of the rest of the movie where it’s more about the struggle against societal expectations of adulthood rather than a definite villain.
The animated adaptation of The Little Prince brings a timeless tale to a new generation, but is it a timeless classic itself? I would say so. The framing tale will always be relevant as long as we have parents trying to micromanage their children’s lives and expectations by society that there’s one path to success. The Little Prince as a book of course always has an important message to both children and adults, and I think that it’s depicted well in the film. Certainly if you’re a fan of the book you should watch this movie, but if you enjoy animation in general, especially stop motion animation, this is definitely a movie for you. If you haven’t read the book it’s probably still worth giving this movie a shot, although I’d highly recommend reading the book at some point regardless. Paramount did the entertainment industry a disservice by not releasing this movie to theaters. It’s sad that they feel that society would not economically support a movie like this. Still, it’s a privilege to be able to experience the talent and passion that went into making this movie, and despite being restricted to a 23” screen, it really brought the spirit of one of the greatest novels of all time to life.