No child, or adult, for that matter, will be able to resist the considerable charm of “The Little Prince,” a starry-eyed animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s timeless story of an aviator whose life is transformed when he meets a little prince in the Sahara Desert.
The film, directed with heart and skill by Mark Osborne, is available for streaming on Netflix Friday. By the time the film ends, something else may be streaming down your cheeks.
“The Little Prince” is shamelessly sentimental, as it celebrates Saint-Exupery’s 1943 story by setting it in modern times and embedding it within the narrative of a thoroughly modern Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) whose mother (Rachel McAdams) creates a complicated “Life Plan” for her to ensure that every minute of her day is spent doing only essential things.
The girl’s mother buys a colorless house that is just like all the other colorless houses in a colorless neighborhood, except for the house next door, a ramshackle affair with a backyard filled with whirligigs, junk and a dilapidated biplane.
The girl soon discovers that the house is owned by an eccentric old man (Jeff Bridges) who has written and illustrated the story of an Aviator who crash-lands in the desert and meets the Little Prince (Riley Osborne). Through the Little Prince’s belief in love and the power of imagination, the Aviator learns that just because you leave childhood behind when you grow up doesn’t mean you have to forget its magic.
The basic story is hardly new to literature and film: From “Peter Pan” to “Miracle on 34th Street” to “Up,” adults have tapped into universal yearning for the simple joy of childhood throughout history. But we come to the various tellings of the story not in search of something new, but rather in search of something familiar, perhaps recalled only fleetingly now that we’re older and have put childish things away. It’s up to the storyteller to make the story new all over again.
In that regard, “The Little Prince” is a masterpiece of remembrance told with exceptional production values at every level. The animation plan brilliantly reflects the structure of setting the original story within the framing device of the Little Girl’s awakening to what it really means to be a child. Saint-Exupery’s original is depicted through stop-motion animation, while the Little Girl’s story is told through artfully detailed computer animation. The scheme is meant to be almost but not quite seamless, so that we join the Aviator as he takes the Little Girl back to his encounter with the Little Prince – rather like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when black-and-white switches to color.
The film score by Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer and collaborators Richard Harvey and French singer-songwriter Camille is equally effective in bringing the various levels of the overall story to life. At times, the music swells with the imagination. At others, it veers into period French jazz and Camille’s effectively catchy songs.
Osborne assembled an all-star cast for the Canadian-French production (a co-venture between Onyx Entertainment in Paris and Mikros in Montreal). In addition to those mentioned above, Paul Rudd voices Mr. Prince, a young man seemingly doomed to a colorless future, when his memory of childhood is rescued by the Little Girl before it disappears entirely; Ricky Gervais is hilariously self-congratulatory as the Conceited Man; Marion Cotillard voices the Rose, who captures the heart of the Little Prince; James Franco is The Fox, Benicio Del Toro is the Snake, the great and ever-elusive Bud Cort is the King, Paul Giamatti is the evil Academy Teacher and Albert Brooks is the Businessman.
“The Little Prince” opened in France and other countries and then kicked off the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February. It was supposed to get a theatrical release, but was pulled by Paramount at the last minute, for reasons that were unstated. Deservedly, it won the Cesar (the French Oscar) as best animated film. After Paramount dropped the movie, Netflix picked it up.
“The Little Prince” is heartbreaking, beautiful and irresistible. It would be all of that and more at any time, but I can’t help feeling especially grateful that it is becoming available now, in the midst of a dark, disturbing summer of discontent. Some may dismiss the film as overly sentimental, but I’d like to think even the most jaded among us will fall heavily for “The Little Prince.”