When French producers came to director Mark Osborne and asked him if he’d make a big, computer-animated film adaptation of the beloved story “The Little Prince,” Osborne had a simple response: No way.
“I knew the book really well, and I never felt it could be a movie,” said Osborne at TheWrap Screening Series presentation of his film on Monday night at the Landmark. “I said, ‘No, in order to make it movie-shaped, you’re going to have to change it so much that you won’t recognize it.”
But Osborne told Wrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman that he did have an idea of how you could make an animated movie that was inspired by “The Little Prince.” It meant forgetting any idea of making an adaptation of the slight, mysterious Antoine de Saint-Exupery story about an aviator who crashes in the desert and meets a young prince who has come to Earth from the small asteroid on which he lives.
“I thought that the only way you could make this book into a big movie is if we tell a larger story around the book, so the book could remain small and poetic,” said Osborne, who co-directed DreamWorks Animation’s first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. “You have to tell a larger story that really celebrated the power of the book and the magic of the book and how it can affect someone’s life. It had to be an adaptation and a tribute at the same time.”
Osborne’s “The Little Prince,” which is rendered in various styles of stop-motion animation, tells the story of a little girl and her overly organized, type-A mother who move in next door to an old aviator who lives in a ramshackle house. The aviator, voiced by Jeff Bridges, tells (and draws) the story of his encounter with the little prince, and that encounter with the story in Saint-Exupery’s book changes the life of the little girl.
“Everything’s borne out of the book,” said Osborne, who also admitted to being inspired by Jacques Tati’s Oscar-winning 1958 comedy “Mon Oncle.” “Even the craziest ideas in our larger story come from the book itself.”
A key to the film, Osborne added, was its handmade, stop-motion style, with the puppets made of paper-based material in tribute to the source material. He brought three of those puppets to the screening.
“We figured out a way to use paper for everything, and the Saint Exupery illustrations were my bible,” said “The Little Prince” production designer Alex Juhasz, who attended the screening with Osborne. “He wasn’t a very good artist — he starts the book by saying, ‘I can’t draw.’ So interpreting his drawings was a real challenge because no drawing of the little prince is remotely similar to the next one. How do you make this loose scribble into a solid, animatable character? That was a lot of fun.”
Since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, “The Little Prince” has made more than $100 million around the world, though in the United States it got a small day-and-date theatrical release concurrent with its debut on Netflix. (That company bought the theatrical rights from Paramount, which Osborne said originally owned those rights because of a 1970s version of the book it had made.)
This comes on a budget, raised from international investors, in the 55 to 60 million Euro range. “But on a daily basis, it felt like we had about $10,” said Osborne at the screening.
“I wanted to make it on a par with what you would expect from a big animated movie, but we were an independent project. It really is this crazy thing that shouldn’t exist, because it never would have been able to go through the channels of the studio system and be what it is.”