As you might have well gathered from the trailers, this is not The Little Prince you grew up with.
The first-ever animated movie adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved tale uses the original novella and its warnings of the vices of adulthood as a launchpad to tell a new and moving adventure. Mackenzie Foy voices a very serious little girl, our unnamed heroine, who is dedicating her entire summer to a rigorous “life plan” meant to make her well-educated, and a “wonderful adult.” But when her mother leaves their uniform grey condo for work each day, a bit of chaos intrudes in the form of their kooky next-door neighbor, an aged pilot with a giant beard and wild stories, voiced—naturally and perfectly—by Jeff Bridges.
This pilot is the kook of the neighborhood, with his colorful, towering rickety home, and backyard full of junk and a broken down plane he hopes to fly once more. At first, our little heroine sees him only as a frustrating distraction. But then, he begins to tell her the story of his friend, the Little Prince. A tale of interplanetary travel, a beloved rose, a tamed fox, and a bevy of bloated and blind adults, it draws her into a life-changing friendship, and away from the suffocating demands of her life plan, building toward an imaginative, strange and exciting finale.
Purists of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may grind their teeth over this liberal adaptation, that slices some planetary pit stops, and excludes a few eccentric characters, but I was wooed by the warmth of director Mark Osborne’s inventive adaptation. He transformed a dreamy fable into a relatable and grounded story that plays true to its source with its high-flying and bittersweet final act. Over the course of a summer, our little heroine was meant to learn math, science, and all sorts of things that’d help her on standardized tests. But instead, she remembers whimsy, revels in imagination, and makes a few friends who guarantee she won’t become another grim adult who’s forgotten the delights to be found if you pause to consider a doodle or stop to smell The Rose.
The voice cast is packed with notable names, from Rachel McAdams as The Mother, Marion Cotillard as The Rose, Ricky Gervais as The Conceited Man, Benicio Del Toro as The Snake, Albert Brooks as The Businessman, and James Franco as The Fox. And each plays their part with suitable—but not upstaging—verve. Even Franco, his soft, vaguely suspicious tone plays well for that tender taming sequence. Yet it’s Bridges, whose toasty, salty voice shoulders the story, weaving us through far away worlds, and real-world traumas. But young Foy—best-known for playing the fiery Murphy in Interstellar—carries The Little Girl’s story ably, lacing earnestness, frustration, and ultimately a dynamic determination into her vocal performance.
Considering this French/Canadian movie was demoted from a US theatrical run to a Netflix release, I suspected The Little Prince might be some clunky substandard fare. Clunky, a bit, but in the lovable way of Terry Gilliam fairy tales, which chase down curious characters instead of getting too caught up in plot. Substandard? Far from it. Osborne integrates various animation aesthetics in the storytelling, making this fun film visually sumptuous. The animation used for the girl’s world has soft edges, and muted colors, while that of the pilot’s stories are vibrant hues, and characters folded as if animated origami. The novella’s watercolor illustrations come to life on the pages the pilot sends into the girl’s bedroom as carefully crafted airplanes. And as the Little Prince becomes more and more real to her, the animation evolves to something bright but more dimensional. It’s richly designed, and gorgeous.
Honestly, I’d tell you to watch The Little Prince for its enchanting animation alone. That it’s poignant, thoughtful, and warmly thrilling, that’s just icing.