Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s imperishably strange classic The Little Prince, from 1943, now has its first full-length animated version, presented by Netflix. This is the story of an aviator who crashes in the Sahara and there discovers a holy-innocent “prince” from another planet (or rather asteroid) who has stories to tell about his upbringing and his adventures all across the galaxy. He appears to understand the Aviator in the way that no-one did in the Aviator’s own childhood. Stanley Donen once directed a live-action version in the 1970s, written by Alan Jay Lerner.
This animation grafts a new narrative level on the existing story, effectively repurposing it as a flashback: the Aviator is now an old guy who befriends a lonely little girl who has just moved in next door. She finds pages of his handwritten story, and he tells her all about it – while becoming her best and only friend.
It is directed by Mark Osborne, whose credits include Kung Fu Panda and The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, but it is a French co-production, and there are two language versions, French and English. The animation is very American, with obvious visual echoes of Up and Inside Out, but the language we see on the screen is French, from the signs outside the soulless Werth Academie – which typifies the dull, hateful world of anti-imagination – to the Aviator’s own dog-eared diaries and illustrated manuscripts.
A little girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) is being bullied, chivvied and drilled by her ambitious mother (Rachel McAdams) into preparing for a top private school: the Werth Academie. They move into the school’s catchment area, and the mother draws up an impossibly tough homework and activity wall chart – which naturally depresses the little girl greatly – but otherwise seems to have no interest in hanging out and talking to her own daughter. She just breezes off to the office with a negligent farewell: “You’re my senior VP!” So the little girl befriends the Aviator next door: a wacky old eccentric (voiced by Jeff Bridges) who keeps a semi-functioning aircraft in his back garden. The Aviator entrances the little girl with his memories of the Prince (voiced by Paul Rudd).
The present-day story unfolds in the pin-sharp Pixar-style animation with all its hyperreal detail and sheen, and the little girl does incidentally rather resemble Riley from Inside Out. But the “classic” sequences from the past are rendered in a simpler, blockier style – effectively a three-dimensional approximation of the illustration in Saint-Exupéry’s original book.
In both French and English versions, and in different languages, Marion Cotillard voices the profoundly mysterious character of the Rose, with whom the Prince had fallen in love, and Cotillard is the only actor to contribute to both films. (In the French movie, incidentally, André Dussollier voices the old Aviator – an actor with a rather smoother, more classic image than Bridges.) Among the exotic personages that the Prince had come across in his travels, Benicio Del Toro voices a wily serpent; Ricky Gervais is the conceited and narcissistic man of fashion; and Albert Brooks is the money-mad businessman. James Franco plays the crafty fox who tells her: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”
It’s a film with charm and sweetness, but for me is structurally encumbered by this new present-day narrative level: the smarter, zappier modern animated style makes the marionette-style images of the past look a bit low-octane and quaint.