Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, published in 1943, might stand as a children’s classic, but it’s not-so-secretly a story for grown-ups. Kids have long been drawn to the book’s dreamy sense of wonder, to the golden-haired star-child of the title, but Saint-Exupéry's ruminations on regret, solitude and loss belong to the mysterious world of adults. If Peter Pan captivates kids with its defiance in the face of growing up, The Little Prince captivates those of us who are older because it’s all about growing up as tragedy. How do you adapt such a book into an expensive animated film in our day and age, and how do you make it appeal to kids? Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince, a French production being released here in an English-dubbed version with an all-star voice cast, tackles that challenge by turning the book into an object in its own story. A simple solution, but it works: The film balances fun and melancholy.
It begins much the same way the book does, with the voice of the Aviator (in this version, he has the soothingly gruff tones of Jeff Bridges) recounting his childhood attempts to draw a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, and how the grown-ups’ unimpressed opinions of his work led him to forget all about being a child. But then we find ourselves in what seems to be the present day, following the story of a girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) whose ambitious, overwhelmed mother (Rachel McAdams) moves her to a new, nondescript suburb in order to get into the prestigious school nearby.
One day, an airplane propeller flies into their yard. It turns out that they’ve moved next-door to the Aviator himself — now a daffy, daydreaming old man whose life is cluttered with the detritus of the past, in particular a decaying plane sitting in his backyard. He regales our heroine with tales of encountering the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) after crash-landing in the Sahara a long time ago. He tells her about the Prince’s tiny world and his universe of minuscule, lonely planets populated by sad little men. He tells her about the Conceited Man (Ricky Gervais) looking for compliments, the Businessman (Albert Brooks) who thinks he owns the stars and the King (Bud Cort) with no power — sticking mostly to the book’s simple allegories and gentle admonitions of materialism.
Meanwhile, the animation intercuts between the CGI so popular today for the sequences set in the present to a stop-motion style that makes the figures look like papier-mâché for the Aviator’s flashbacks. The latter proves a nice analogue for Saint-Exupéry’s iconic watercolors, with their rough, dashed-off simplicity. The fragile quality of the stop-motion also matches the original’s themes of impermanence and its Zen notion that humans are just imperfect vessels — a thought lovingly conveyed to the Prince by a mysterious fox voiced by James Franco. That idea also informs the book’s memorably sad ending, which has the Prince gently dying and vanishing like a whisper after promising the Aviator that he was merely returning to his own world.
But you can’t close out a modern-day kids’ movie the way Saint-Exupéry ended his book; you’d have a revolt. So the film goes on and explores the further adventures of our young heroine: The Aviator falls ill and the girl goes off on a harebrained quest to find the Prince. She eventually lands in a city that’s not one of those tiny little planets the Prince once told us about, but rather a Terry Gilliam–esque urban dystopia filled with regimented workers and gray, lifeless buildings stretching into the dark skies. Will she find the Prince? You have one guess.
Turning The Little Prince into Metropolis? Can it possibly work? There's a disconnect here, true, between the modest, homespun vision of Saint-Exupéry’s tale and this densely intricate new world. But there’s a logic to it, too. These new scenes are also quite beautiful in their own right, but viewers will find themselves longing to return to the utopian innocence of the earlier story, which fleshes out the abstract nostalgia. Osborne never loses sight of the story’s sense of allegory, its dreamlike nature; he just scales it up for today and peoples it with new variations on the sad characters of the Prince’s old universe. Not everyone will be onboard with this choice — not when it comes to such a classic wisp of a tale like The Little Prince. But there’s a lot of charm, thought and feeling in this film version. It expands on the original without dishonoring it.