Adaptation Observations: The Little Prince

Title: The Little Prince
Source: Netflix
Director: Mark Osborne
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie Foy, Riley Osborne
Adapting: Le Petite Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A Little Girl and her Mother are desperate to get her ready to attend the prestigious, if intimidatingly rigid and boringly adult, Werth Academy. They have a plan and they are going to stick to it. But a spanner, or an airplane propeller, is thrown into the works when the Little Girl meets her new next door neighbour, the Aviator, who begins to tell her the story of the time he was stranded in the Sahara desert and met a Little Prince.

The Little Prince, or Le Petite Prince, is a beloved children's classic, translated from the original french into hundreds of languages and read all over the world, about the adventures of the eponymous Prince when he leaves his small asteroid home and his beloved, but terribly vain, Rose. Dealing with the very strange wants and desires of adults, social criticism, philosophy, love, and life, and loss, this may be a story for children but there is a lot in there for even the most grown up of us to enjoy.

I first encountered it in a French class as a child, where we read the beginning of the story in its original language, very slowly, being English and mono-lingual. I remember smiling to myself with pride and delight as the words deciphered inside my brain, a huge achievement for little me, and the image of a boa constrictor that's just eaten an elephant is still just as clear in my mind, and just as amusingly silly, today. I read it again years later, in English, languages were never my strong suit, and it delighted me once again, it really is a beautiful if rather odd story, wonderfully and humorously illustrated, and it certainly belongs on every child's shelf. So when I heard that they were finally making an animated movie adaptation I was very intrigued.

Released via Netflix here in the UK earlier this month, after having its premier at last year's Cannes Film Festival and a wide release in France, you can go and watch it right now. Unless you don't have Netflix I suppose, but hey ho. And so I sat down the day it came out to give it a watch, hopefully optimistic. It turned out to be something of a mixed bag for me, very much a film of two halves, both in design and quality, while there were things I absolutely adored, there were others that I did not.

It's always nice to see a female main character in animation, something that Osborne apparently did very deliberately having read about the disparity of the genders in animation lead roles, and the Little Girl was a pretty good one. She was flawed but very likable, a child who starts out behaving like a forty-two year old accountant who's not the biggest hit at parties, but gradually learns to let go a little, to realise that you don't have to be essential one hundred percent of the time as she befriends her very eccentric neighbour and a little colour enters her life. Quite literally, as the very muted colour palette, emphasising the dull drudgery of the adult world, erupts with brightness under his presence and influence.

The elderly Aviator was easily the best character, voiced by Jeff Bridges, this guy was a hoot, a barmy old man who his neighbours want to avoid at all costs, who'd rather fill his life with ice cream and glow-in-the-dark stars than the dull drudgery of those around him. He's the real heart of the film, connecting the two slightly disparate parts, threading them together as he shares his past as his life comes to its end, the one grown up who remembers the importance of childhood. The other main character, the Mother, was the typical overbearing, goal obsessed parent, never got much development of her own but managed to stay just on the right side of likable despite her attempts to plan out every moment of her child's life. On a side note, I rather liked that there are no proper names to be found here, which is a nice carry over from the original story.

Notice that in the synopsis I've barely even mentioned the story of The Little Prince, the original book being only a novella necessitated some padding to fill an entire movie run-time, achieved with the framing device of the Little Girl. I quite liked her story for the most part, it was entertaining and sweet but not anything particularly special, and unfortunately this part of the story ended up dominating the whole affair a bit, sadly a little at the cost of its much better half. The Little Prince was left as just a tiny portion of the film, even leaving out parts of the already short tale altogether, I certainly noted that the Lamplighter made an appearance in the opening credits but was nowhere to be found in the narrative itself.

The stuff we did get of it was fantastic though, the Little Prince was just as sweetly innocent a character as he ever was and his tale just as strange and enchanting. The various eccentric characters he meets are just as absurd and bitingly satirical as they are in the novella, the core message just as touching and very human, the ending just as bitter-sweetly sad. Though the use of very modern speech in the rest of the film made his more archaic phrasing seem quite odd, like a parable being read rather than a real person speaking, it still worked well as a whole, and I would love to see a complete and separate version of this part just on its own.

This would be fairly easy as there are two very distinct and different animation styles in this film; one for the present which is rendered in crisp, clean computer animation, and another for the Aviator's story of the Little Prince which is beautifully realised in a stop motion paper effect. All of the props have to be given for this truly gorgeous piece of animation, by far my favourite aspect of the film. Every moment of original story of The Little Prince is exquisite to look at and I was always just a little disappointed to go back to the framing story and its more conventional style, even just on a visual level. So when that part of the story was finished with, about halfway through, the film sadly took a bit of a nose-dive, but not just visually.

With nothing left but the framing story and another, new encounter with the Little Prince, the second half did not stand up to the much stronger first, it actually made me just a little bit cross. It may have been taking place within the Little Girl's imagination but it messed with the beautifully bittersweet ending of the original story and turned it into something generic and frankly not very good. As a film in its own right it wasn't bad, but as an adaptation of a beloved book I was very disappointed in where the film went in its final act. Seeing the Little Prince changed into something else, and in the cgi style rather than the gorgeous stop-motion, was a little jarring and a lot disappointing. Boo to that. At least the Fox was gorgeous in both cases though, the stop-motion version was a thing of beauty while the cgi stuffed toy version was adorably lovable.

The very ending moments of the movie did pick up a little, as we returned to the Aviator, but by that point it had all but lost me, I was left somewhat disappointed but with enough lingering memory of the truly exceptional beauty of the stop-motion work to still have made this well worth a watch. Though maybe the purists should consider skipping most of that second half, I think this will be a big hit with kids and the less rabid, it's bright and bold and fun, with a good, if not very subtle, central lesson. So if you've got some little ones, or if you don't think the divergence from the source material will bother you, or if you like stop-motion animation, like, at all, go check this out. And, hey, it's on Netflix, what have you got to lose?

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