The following is going to sound like a thinly disguised backdoor brag but it’s not meant to be. I started reading at a very advanced level at an early age so, if I did read The Little Prince, I don’t remember it. The reason this is not me patting myself on the back is that I also encountered a lot of adult oriented drama waaay too early in life. I was reading Stephen King when I should have been reading The Hardy Boys and although I didn’t understand all of it, it may have warped my psyche to the point that I don’t relate to the classics, at least not anything before discovering Grimm’s Fairy Tales and how dark children’s stories could be. So what I’m trying to say is, I am familiar with the cover of the book and some of the quotes that people sew onto pillows but I don’t harbor any particular sentimentality towards The Little Prince. But I do now.
It all started with this damn trailer that is so magical I didn’t even want to watch the film because there is no way it could live up to its promise. But by framing the original story within a new one Mark Osborne and company are able to tell two narratives, the former about the wonder of youth and the absurdity of adulthood and the latter, about the power of storytelling and the imagination. Both overlap somewhere along the way without overwhelming one another; both, ultimately, become fables about growing up, love, and death. The new plot line is cut directly from the Pixar formula combined with a touch of Miyazaki; it’s clear, expository, and charming. On the other hand, the dream-like sequences that recall the Prince’s story are cryptic and obscure but somehow just as clear, the transition marked by a switch to paper-cut animation and traditional stop motion from CGI. And the effect is hypnotic. It would also be easy to confuse its elegant dialogue for New Age pablum until you remember the novel was originally written in French and published in 1943. Although some of it can be confused with spiritual platitudes and semi-profound insights, some ideas are beautiful enough to transcend both language and generations. And instead of trying to duplicate whatever magic is found in the book, the filmmakers only tease the Prince’s story, touching on its themes without relying on it to carry the film.
The voice talent on this film is out of this world (said stupid Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, probably). Jeff Bridges and Mackenzie Foy, Paul Rudd, Rachel McAdams, Ricky Gervais, Benicio Del Toro and the list goes on, it speaks to the quality of the story how many big names are on board for what are essentially cameos. The emotional center is Bridges who could be creepy or off-putting if his performance weren’t so heartrendingly genuine. When the story takes a mature turn I was heartbroken at his delivery, in all its simple grandeur or lack thereof. I can never remember loving the man’s voice as much as I do in this film or becoming attached to an animated character so quickly. Also, apparently this is Rachel McAdams first animated feature which is surprising, she has a real gift for it and brings a wounded diligence to the mother without coming off as villainous. But the real star of the film is 15 year old Mackenzie Foy who has done nothing but make me cry since her breakout performance in Interstellar as young Murph (don’t let me leave, Murph!). She simultaneously grounds the film while also elevating it with a surprisingly tender performance, all while handling the comedic beats like a champ.
I don’t often watch animated films and that’s not an attempt to seem superior. I appreciate them but my taste in film has to do with nuance and imperfection and all the little ways an actor, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and so forth compose a scene. I like to go back and rewatch those scenes come together, like a chemical reaction where you see something new every time. Animation, on the other hand, is precisely executed, there is no spontaneity. Hundreds of artists and designers and writers contribute to each frame which is not an inferior product, just a different one, the same way a three piece rock band can be as thrilling as a full orchestra, depending on the context. The Little Prince is both. Big and majestic and beautiful. Intimate and sweet and endearing. It succeeds in being both unique and familiar and instantly memorable. It’s on the nose with its message, unapologetically so and it’s an urgent one, a sadly beautiful reminder that growing up is inevitable but not the end of youth. That animated films and children’s books can be more than they seem and aren’t only for children. And that the most important things in life are invisible to the eye but not the heart.