The Little Prince (2016) by Mark Osborne
Review by Andrew Swafford
One of my most formative experiences as a young reader was my mother repeatedly reading me an old copy of Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and one of my formative experiences as a moviegoer was watching the 2009 film adaptation by Spike Jonze. The original picture book might as well be a poem: it only contains 8 sentences and about 100 unique words, using sparse language to describe a tumultuous world elevated by imagination. It was a story deemed unfilmable, either because the original narrative was too brief or because childhoods would be ruined in the process of producing it. Miraculously, Jonze and Sendak worked together to expand the story, remaining true to the poetic vision of the original simply by fleshing out the characters already present in the text. The film displayed a great sense of psychological realism, and I would argue it stands as one of the absolute best depictions of childhood ever put to film.
I mention this in relation to The Little Prince--which I’m going to analyze as an adaptation first and foremost--to establish that I am not one of those who thinks movies are always inferior to their literary primogenitors. This is especially true when talking of small, abstract children’s stories like Where The Wild Things Are and The Little Prince--there is so much room for interpretation and artistic license in these stories, and they beg for further exploration in other mediums. I adore Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince as a piece of literature even more than I do Wild Things, but it’s not a sacred cow. For over a year now, I’ve anticipated this film fervently, completely okay with the fact that the creators might do something unique with the story--and they certainly have. However, what Mark Osborne and On Animation Studios have produced here is a real shame, both for its flaws and its strengths.
The 2016 animated adaptation of The Little Prince is not actually about The Little Prince, but rather about an unnamed Little Girl who reads his story as written by her next-door neighbor, an aged Aviator who served as the narrator in Saint-Exupéry’s text. The film alternates back and forth between the world of the Little Girl and the world of the storybook, blending textures and animation styles to represent layers of the narrative in ways that are aesthetically breathtaking and all in service of the story’s themes of ambition and imagination.
The Little Girl’s world is a CGI landscape of concrete buildings and adults in full suits, borrowing character modelling cues from Pixar (notably The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Up) and set design cues from the blockiness of The Powerpuff Girls and (stay with me on this one) the urban visuals of Koyaanisqatsi, in which birds-eye views reveal metropolitan infrastructure as mimicking programmed circuit boards and microchips. This world feels plasticy, digital, and designed with too many right angles, too much symmetry for life to truly flourish.
In the storybook world of The Little Prince, however, all is organic. These sections of the film are shot in stop-motion animation and borrow much more heavily from the work of Henry Selick and LAIKA (it's worth noting that the writer of The Boxtrolls wrote this), as the character models feel carved out of wood and the backdrops cut out of papyrus or ancient cloth. The vast deserts and gorgeous nebulas of Saint-Exupery’s world are lovingly crafted here, and it’s hard to imagine any cinematic style--animated or live action--more suitable for such a touching story of childlike love and cosmic uncertainty.
For much of the film, the Little Girl goes back and forth between this papier-mâché land of imagination and the sterile conformity of her world, which is dominated by a well-intentioned Mother micromanaging all of her life choices via minute-by-minute scheduling all for the sake of academic and professional success. Parts of the mother-daughter relationship (as well as the parallel stories of world vs. otherworld) remind me of the first half of Coraline (my favorite film), before the Other Mother’s endless love and affection reveals itself as horrific possessiveness, entrapment, and objectification.
This frame story about how children are forced by their parents and schools into a factory-like mentality of adulthood--chasing money, status, and admiration but never achieving true happiness--is actually perfect for the story as originally told. Each parable-like chapter of Saint-Exupéry’s text is a crash course in existentialism for children, full of anecdotes about adults getting on and off trains but going nowhere, lighting and unlighting lamps that illuminate nothing, and counting money never to be spent.
However--and this is a BIG however--this adaptation of The Little Prince, for all its beauty and intellect, is flawed in such a deep and fundamental way that the entire narrative fails. The flaw is not, as some critics have suggested, that the third act takes too much liberty with the story by venturing off into uncharted territory for over 30 minutes. I have a few complaints about that section as well, like the disregard for mortality and character deaths that were so central to the book--and especially the climax becoming an action setpiece in which conflict is resolved in a stupidly physical way. But artistic license is fine and adding new material is not this film's Problem. The Problem is that this entire movie attempts to deconstruct The Little Prince without constructing it first.
The actual, physical book of The Little Prince exists within the world of this movie. The Little Girl reads from its pages, the Mother rips them up and throws them away, and the Little Girl tapes it all back together again, ultimately binding it with the dark-blue illustrated asteroid cover that has now become iconic. But the book isn’t put together until the very end, and for 99% of the runtime, The Little Prince’s story exists as loose and tattered sheets of paper, fluttering about in small pieces but never a larger narrative. This, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the film--for as beautiful and well-intended as the stop-motion storybook sections of this movie are, they are merely scattered here and there, presented in excerpted form and glossed over quickly in order to return to the Little Girl’s frame story.
I hate to be the guy who harps on what was left out of a book-to-film adaptation, but this is ridiculous. If you were to stitch together all the storybook parts of this film into one cohesive piece, it would maybe be ten minutes long. Ten minutes of The Little Prince in a 108 minute film called The Little Prince. This is not a situation like Where The Wild Things Are in which hardly anything happens in the first place--The Little Prince is a lengthy story with many memorable and profound moments. So many incredible scenes--the drunkard’s planet, the lamplighter’s planet, the railway scene, etc.--are completely absent. My favorite section of the book (in which The Little Prince visits six planets run by different men before arriving at earth) is 20 pages, but the film practically reduces the journey to montage and its characters into cameo appearances. Characters who develop strong relationships with The Little Prince--The Rose and The Fox--are hardly in this film. Blink and you’ll miss them, then you’ll be wondering why The Little Prince keeps lamenting on and on about “his flower” for the rest of the story.
These plot beats and characters Matter, and giving them time to develop is crucial to maintain the structural integrity of the whole piece. Without these fundamental elements, Saint-Exupéry’s story just feels meandering and sophomoric, full of pretentious pondering without any real substance. Now take that gutted, substance-sucked version of The Little Prince and make it an aggregated-10-minute blip, spread out over the course of a much much longer narrative that takes all of its cues from a story that it doesn’t bother to tell you. This is shameful.
Like a tiny painting in a gargantuan frame, the story of The Little Prince is too insignificant to be focused on--it is made a footnote in its own story. The original text makes certain references to things that are “essential” (love, playfulness, art) and “inessential” (material things, status, power, etc.), and Osborne’s film latches onto this and runs with it, applying this terminology to make labels for so many things throughout the film. What’s troubling is that for a Little Prince adaptation so concerned with what is essential and inessential, it unfortunately considers the actual story of The Little Prince to be inessential.