Monday, May 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Little Prince’

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“Once when I was six years old…” It may not be once upon a time, but the nature of it is the same. The Little Prince is a magical tale spun by an old aviator to a young girl who has just moved in next door. Much of the movie’s magic comes from the animation and the movie’s uncanny ability to capture Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s whimsical directness.

Mark Osborne’s adaptation of Saint-Exupery’s infamous book takes advantage of the book’s sparseness. The challenge is that the book is almost a poem, an exercise in associated writing, if you will. Osbourne and his writers Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti plant Saint-Exupery’s tale smack dab into their version of a modern world. It is a story within a story. But true to the book’s unbridled imagination, the real world is every bit as exaggerated as the fantasy.

the little prince
The Little Prince (Voiced by Riley Osborne) and The Fox (voiced by James Franco)

Movies made for children are a mixed bag. Many of them are cynically made by big studios whose only genuine interest is in the box office numbers and potential for sequels and merchandising. Maybe, if we’re lucky, these movies usually have a message or an idea smuggled into the center of the story.

The Little Prince is a minor miracle. Yes, it’s from a big studio, Paramount, but it dares to have more than one idea in its big beautiful head. The film tackles death, the need for fantasy, the different ways people show love, and the toll of a culture that demands its citizenry spend every waking moment being productive or making money.

Much like the book, the characters in real life don’t have names so much as descriptors. The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) and her Mother (Rachel McAdams) move next door to the Aviator (Jeff Bridges), the neighborhood kook. 

Brignull and Persichetti have faith in children’s intelligence. For example, when the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) says, “I have a rose,” the film never tells us what that means. We understand the relationship between the Prince and the Rose mirrors that of the Little Girl and her Mother. The Little Prince allows the kids in the audience to figure out for themselves. It trusts them to get there.

The Mother wants very much for her daughter to be happy. But that means getting into a good school and having a promising career to have a lovely home. So she has planned the girl’s day, indeed her life, down to the second using complicated calculations and a planning board—no points for guessing that she works as an accountant during the day.

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The Mother (voiced by Rachel McAdams) and the Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy)

Osborne and his writers do a fantastic job of showing us the strong relationship between the Mother and the Little Girl while also showing us the cracks. The Mother is not some wicked witch but a single mom trying her best to ensure her daughter succeeds. It is a relationship fraught with love and fear.

The Little Girl wants to be happy and has no problem following her mother’s dreams. If only because she has never stopped and thought about what she herself has wanted. Enter the eccentric Aviator next door who has a story to tell. Here again, Osborne and his writers never beat us over the head as to why the story is essential to the Aviator. Merely that it is his story and stories are meant to be shared.

The Little Prince is not a story about how growing up is wrong or that adults are evil. Instead, it is a clarion call to remember that life is more than productivity and how our relationships define us. It does so by mixing the language of Brignull, Persichetti, and Saint-Exupery is merely a treat. 

Take, for example, the meeting between the Little Prince and the Fox (James Franco). “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy, who is just like 100,000 other little boys. And I have no need for you. And you have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox, like a 100,000 foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.” Osborne understands the simple direct power of the book’s prose and dialogue. 

Jeff Bridges is the perfect choice as both the narrator and the Aviator. He is the perfect balance of charming, kind-hearted but with a hint of unpredictable danger in his voice. Hearing Bridges read Saint-Exupery’s words and Brignull and Prisichetti’s is one of the many pleasures of The Little Prince.

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The Aviator (voiced by Jeff Brdiges) and the Little Girl

Osborne and his animators create a stark difference between the world that The Little Girl inhabits and the world of The Little Prince. Of course, the real world is starker, with a colder color palette, unless she is with the Aviator. Meanwhile, the fantasy world is a different type of animation, a sort of stop-motion with the texture of wood or paper-mache. 

The Little Prince moves like a fairy-tale, which is to say, with great sympathy for all involved. It has a sincere belief in the magic of the world around us and inside of us. It is a tale as old as time in that it tries to wrap its arms around the great big scary beast that is our day-to-day life and remind us that stories exist to remind us that while dragons exist-they can be slain.

Osborne and his writers tack on an ending that is not in the book but pulls off the hat trick of feeling as if it could be. In addition, it also sharpens its critique against capitalism and big business by shrewdly demonstrating that Corporate America loves to throw around the words “You’re Fired” but seems powerless to the phrase “I Quit.” Thus, it is both a pointed jab at our corrupt institutions and a reminder that the power for change lies within us.

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The Businessman (voiced by Albert Brooks) and Mr. Prince (voiced by Paul Rudd)

Astonishingly few mainstream movies deal with death with real gravitas or nuance these days. Perhaps it’s because I watched The Little Prince during the third wave of a worldwide pandemic, but I found the sensitive but unflinching way the film dealt with death refreshing. Osborne isn’t looking for ways to move us by killing off beloved characters but instead hoping to prepare kids for an inevitability. Though in the end, there is an implication that for at least one character, the inevitable has finally arrived.

The Little Prince had me weeping more than a few times. I loved every frame and every minute of this movie. For a film released in 2015, it appears almost tailor-made for our particular time and place. 

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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