While it’s definitely family-friendly, and often visually stunning, the ambitious film adaptation of “The Little Prince” may leave adult viewers royally flummoxed. Portions are faithful to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 much-loved, oft-quoted classic translated into over 250 languages. But the overall effect here is a muddled one that feels like, at most, half of a good movie. An internationally starry voice cast does little to redeem it.
Premiering on Netflix and in limited theatrical release on Aug. 5, “The Little Prince” is reportedly one of the priciest French animated features, and the stop-motion animated sequences are exhilaratingly gorgeous. When the film hews to its source material, the results are enchanting, but director Mark Osborne (“Kung Fu Panda”) and writers Bob Persichetti (“Puss in Boots”) and Irena Brignull (“The Boxtrolls”) create a predictable and sentimental framing device around the slim tale that undercuts the potency of the book’s meditations on love and mortality.
That present-day story, rendered in hyper-realistic, exaggeratedly big-eyed CGI, seems like almost a separate movie, with its focus on the friendship forged between an eccentric elderly aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges) and his next-door neighbor, a latchkey child whom the writers never bothered to name (Mackenzie Foy). In the not-too-distant background hovers her overbearing, Type A helicopter mom (Rachel McAdams).
The little girl ostensibly goes nameless to match other characters identified only by their role in life (i.e. aviator, mother, businessman). She’s a lonely, dutiful girl who, in wan Disneyesque fashion, learns simultaneously to have fun and become empowered through her connection with the oddball aviator. The story is uninspired at best, contrived at worst. And while the young girl is spunky and likeable, the flat tale almost obscures the poetry and endearing whimsy of the core story, about an airman who crashes his plane in a desert and meets a mysterious young prince fallen to earth from an asteroid.
The novella’s tale of the power of love is essentially a graceful story within that larger, clunkier contemporary story, beautifully rendered in stop motion. It’s enchanting, painterly and timeless, befitting the iconic French classic, with a style that feels both fresh and appropriately reverential. The stop-motion segment has a rich, texture, with a cut-paper quality, artfully bringing the book’s watercolor illustrations to vivid, albeit delicate, life. In this enthralling portion, Riley Osborne voices the Prince, Marion Cotillard is the Rose, Ricky Gervais plays the Conceited Man, Benicio del Toro is the snake and James Franco enlivens the fox.
The modern sequence, set in an antiseptic, cookie-cutter style suburbia, is a well-meaning cautionary tale about the importance of following one’s dream, making the most of the time allotted and avoiding conformity. But as delivered, the message fails to pack the requisite punch.
The little girl and her micro-managing mom move to a muted new neighborhood so the girl can attend an elite academy. She is tasked with an elaborate and time-consuming preparation schedule for the summer, every moment strictly programmed, leading up to the start of school. But her meeting with the kindly, fun-loving Aviator who lives in the ramshackle house next door — apparently the only colorful, non sterile-looking edifice in the entire city — stirs things up. He tells her the story of the Little Prince, and enchantment ensues as the stop-motion kicks in. If only the emotional shading between the girl and the Aviator were as rich and enthralling.
A final sequence — meant to be action-packed and exciting — feels tacked-on, hectic and overly extended. The Aviator falls ill and the little girl flies his rickety bi-plane to a dystopian and distant city. The futuristic urban nightmare is run by the dictatorial Businessman (Albert Brooks). Under his employ is the Prince — now grown up and a disenfranchised janitor (Paul Rudd). (Transforming the title character into a miserable under-employed man-child who would qualify to attend Trump rallies comes off like literary heresy.) Once Mr. Prince is freed from his subjugation, they return to his asteroid with the aim of his being re-united with his beloved rose.
What happens next is nothing like the original intent — or poetic nature — of the book, which focused on love’s power to render the ordinary extraordinary. Instead, it becomes about retaining childlike enthusiasm, which is a worthy enough theme, but markedly different from the original. The movie has an annoying habit of seeming to end several times, giving it the sense that it’s substantially longer than its 106 minutes.
With its charming, but thin, narrative, heartfelt spirituality and mythical elements, the Saint-Exupery book doesn’t lend itself to easy adaptation. Filmmakers have floundered trying (including an effort by Stanley Donen in 1974 which starred Gene Wilder and Bob Fosse).
Impressively, this latest undertaking, specifically the stop motion portions, comes close at times to capturing that ineffable magic. And it’s those exquisitely rendered moments of synchronicity that make the formulaic turns of this big-screen “The Little Prince” all the more disheartening.