For better and for worse, The Little Prince does a lot with very little. The film takes a short, surreal children’s tale and frames it within an all new story in the “real world” meant to contextualize the story’s importance. Despite the inherent arrogance of deciding a worldwide bestseller requires contextualization, the approach is actually largely effective… until it isn’t.
Perhaps 50% of the film feels like an unquestionable animated masterpiece – gorgeous, thought provoking, and touching in ways that rival the best Pixar has to offer. Another 25% of the film is still very good but feels underdeveloped. Unfortunately, these are often the parts that retell the actual story of The Little Prince novel. And then there’s that last 25% – the entire third act really. To say the least, it’s going to be divisive for fans of the novel.
This isn’t to say that the animated adaptation ends poorly, but it extends the novel’s succinct and ambiguous ending into something both more confusing and overexplained. The fact that the film at least maintains its sense of wonder and (mostly) sticks its landing save it from being a total disaster. At no point does the experience become “bad,” but its detour into a pseudo-sequel fan-fic territory is certainly jarring. At best, the additions justify the framing device starring The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy). At worst, they simply replace a poignant ending with slightly lesser one.
But these unusual decisions of story focus are the only negative thing to say about the film. Despite a moderate budget for an animated picture, the film finds incredible beauty in relatively lo-fi imagery. It deftly bounces between traditional, stop motion, and computer animation styles, never failing to impress with the feelings it evokes from each. It also sports one of the best scores of the year, courtesy of Hans Zimmer.
The new characters created for the film are fantastic. The relationship between The Little Girl and The Mother (Rachel McAdams) should be horrifying in its dysfunction. Instead, it is deeply understandable and both characters are incredibly likable. The two are products of a dysfunctional society, but we never doubt their love or commitment for one another, even as The Little Girl begins to feel that her mother’s plans for her life may not actually be what’s best for her. The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) is an odd fabrication, considering he is only in the vaguest sense based on The Little Prince‘s real author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. However, for the purpose of the story he works surprisingly well, indicating that even as an adult, finding a balance between growing up and “being a grown-up” is tough. Despite his cartoonish antics, his relationship with The Girl feels not just authentic but beautiful.
The Little Prince novel is about a lot of things – among these the lesson that “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” The film expands this premise to show an entire dystopian world of false essentials. Its “real world” feels almost Brazil-ian in its machinations, becoming even more so when distorted by fantasy (?) in its third act. Fortunately, The Little Prince doesn’t settle on that worldview as a given. While it offers no easy journey, its compass points true.
The Little Prince isn’t a flawless picture, but it’s a darn good one. There may be no better metaphorical example of a filmmaker shooting for the moon, only to get lost in the stars. But as we learn from the Prince, living among the stars is no bad thing.
The Little Prince is currently available to US audiences on Netflix. It was pulled from a theater release at the last minute because Americans didn’t care about an adaptation of the fourth most translated book in history.