Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Revisiting "The Little Prince"

I first read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" as a preteen, after hearing praise for it for some time.  My older cousin owned a copy in French, and had let me look at the pictures when I was younger.  It seemed like my kind of book, full of fantastic concepts, but I came away confused, unable to get my head around the sad ending.  I saw bits and pieces of the various media adaptations over the following years, including Rachel Portman's opera, but they didn't help spur much affection for the story.  So I'm glad that Mark Osborne's 2015 animated film about "The Little Prince" takes some time to acknowledge that this can be a difficult story to connect to.

This version of "The Little Prince" isn't the straightforward adaptation that I had been expecting.  Instead, the movie is chiefly concerned with a precocious Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) of about the same age that I was when I first read the book, who is told the story of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) by the eccentric old Aviator (Jeff Bridges) who lives next door.  The Little Girl is being exhaustively prepared by her micromanaging Mother (Rachel McAdams) to be a success in the upcoming school year and beyond, but she slowly becomes friends with the Aviator, and then part of the story of the Little Prince.  Most of the film is rendered in CGI animation, but the stories of the Little Prince are in stop-motion animation.

I can't emphasize enough how lovely and evocative the stop-motion segments are, which directly adapt the Saint-Exupéry novel to film.  There's such a warm vibrancy and tactile delicacy to the characters, the simple designs reflecting the original watercolor illustrations beautifully.  The CGI animation is good, but not at the same level - there's something a little off about the character designs of the Mother and the Aviator - but there are a lot of ingenious visuals here too, in the glum conformist neighborhood where the Little Girl lives, and the cheerful clutter of the Aviator's home.  It surely made a difference that the director is a veteran of both mediums.  Mark Osborne is a familiar name to animation buffs, having come to prominence with the stop-motion short "More" in 1999, and then as co-director of the first "Kung Fu Panda" movie for DreamWorks in 2008.

The story is a little ungainly, with an extended third act sequence that imagines a nightmarish additional chapter of the Little Prince's adventures that is jarringly modern.  However, the film does an admirable job of showing how the present-day woes of the cynical Little Girl are relatable to the journeys and lessons of the Little Prince. There are a few moments where the fit is awkward, and some of the references and callbacks are awfully twee, but overall this feels like a very personal, genuine exploration of the book's themes and ideas.  I like that the film isn't too precious with the source material, being very faithful to it in one context, but then goes off on some wild tangents through the Little Girl's processing of it.  I haven't seen a children's film so boldly anti-establishment and anti-conformist in a long while - but remember that Osborne did direct "More."

You'll notice a lot of celebrity names in the cast, but most of them make only very brief appearances.  The big exception is Jeff Bridges' as the Aviator, who is a major character in the Little Girl's story and narrates all the Little Prince's adventures.  His performance is fantastic, often acting as a bridge (no pun intended) between the two sides of the movie.  Mackenzie Foy is also very good as the Little Girl, a little abrasive and a little incredulous in just the right proportions, but I think she may have been a bit too old for the role.  The production certainly does a good job of pretending that it's from one of the major Hollywood animation houses, but this was animated at several smaller studios including Montreal's Mikros Image, and was a co-production of several French production companies - which is very appropriate, given the material.  I'm curious about the French language version, where André Dusollier plays the Aviator.

I think that the best thing I can say about the new "Little Prince" film is that I wish I'd seen it when I was younger, and still stewing over the ending of the book.  I think this movie would have gotten me to go back and try reading it again.

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