Childhood has no better hype man than animated movies. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that it’s taken 73 years for one of the most popular tales of rejecting adulthood, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to be turned into an animated film. Both the novella and its new adaptation, available today (August 5) on Netflix, express a deep fear of maturity and its attendant myopias. At the end of Saint-Exupéry’s novella, the Little Prince is willing to sacrifice his body to return to his home planet. The idea of joining our world never occurs to him.
But is growing up so bad? It is in director Mark Osborne’s retelling, where the adults have reshaped their universe into one of right angles, somber colors, and a lack of stars. Bikes are ground up and spit out as paper clips. Everything is cut into a grid: cities, the new house that the Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) and her mom (Rachel McAdams) move into, and the 10-minute increments into which the Little Girl’s helicopter-parented days are scheduled. It’s so dystopian, Katniss Everdeen would feel sorry for them.
I’m sure this is someone’s idea of the grownup world. But the film’s divide between childhood as a time of wonder and guilelessness and adulthood as one of drudgery and responsibility is so stark and rigid that it’s difficult to take seriously, and thus tough to get invested in the stakes.
Saint-Exupéry’s book hardly lends itself to a screen-worthy story: Fleeing the needy vanity of the rose (Marion Cotillard) that he loves, the Little Prince visits several planets until he lands on Earth, where he meets the Aviator (Jeff Bridges doing Jeff Bridges), who crashes his plane in the Sahara. They exchange a few aphorisms, search for water, and then the Prince decides to return to his rose. All these plot points are reenacted somewhat hurriedly in gorgeous stop-motion flashbacks — a departure from the rest of the film’s computer animation.
But the movie’s protagonist is the Little Girl, who learns about the Prince through the aged Aviator, and whose story is padded with the familiar children’s movie tropes: chases, a canine sidekick (a stuffed fox that comes to life), and singlehandedly saving the world. The Little Girl is a pure-hearted innocent, and so is the Little Prince, shorn of the slight brattiness and intractability he displays in the novella. The Aviator is, too — so childlike, in fact, that he can’t drive a car for more than five minutes without getting into a near-fatal accident. Osborne makes Saint-Exupéry’s whites whiter and his blacks blacker.
The result, at least for me, is like absently nodding along with someone I disagree with profoundly, but letting them continue to speak because they have such a mellifluous voice. Osborne riffs beautifully on the book’s watercolored motifs, like the stars and the roses. The Little Prince is obsessed with sunsets, and the film shows us in swirling scarlet glory why he would be. (Too bad the release from Netflix mostly kept the film out of theaters; those sunsets would’ve been sublime on a 50-foot screen.) The film’s willingness to deal with the loss not just of childhood but also of people is admirable, even if it doesn’t offer much beyond the usual family-friendly bromides.
Ultimately, The Little Prince depends on its viewers’ willingness to go along with twee flutterings like “The stars are beautiful because of a flower that cannot be seen.” I’m too much of an adult to swallow that saccharine bilge, I guess. “You are going to make a wonderful grownup,” says the Little Girl’s mother early in the film. I’d much rather have watched that than yet another instance of nostalgia porn, no matter how charmingly drawn.