Why Santa Barbara Film Fest Is Kicking Off With an Animated Movie

Courtesy of Cannes
'The Little Prince'

This year, for the first time, the festival opens with an animation: from the director of 'Kung Fu Panda,' a $60 million adaptation of the beloved children's book 'The Little Prince.'

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In many ways, it's the perfect film to open the Santa Barbara Film Festival. It's based on a beloved classic, features an all-star cast of indie favorites (Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd and Jeff Bridges, along with Ricky Gervais) and its themes touch on such art house chestnuts as ephemeral love and longing for lost youth. There's just one catch — it's a cartoon.

The Little Prince will be the first animated movie to open the Santa Barbara Film Festival since the festival started in 1985. But executive director Roger Durling, who has been running the program for 13 years, says the film "crosses all the checklists" of what a festival opener should be. "The subject matter, the family programming, the international flavor of the production — and Jeff Bridges lives here in Santa Barbara!" he says. "It's all pieces of the puzzle that made everything kismet."

The children's story about an aviator who crashes in the Sahara and meets a young boy was originally published in France in 1943 and has since been translated into 250 languages, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time (more than 140 million copies worldwide). But it's a tricky book to adapt — the last to try was Stanley Donen in 1974 with a live-action version starring Gene Wilder and Bob Fosse — and not just because of its surreal, multilayered plotline, which includes several visits to alien planets. The story is so universally beloved, there are those even in Hollywood who hate the idea of it being tampered with on film. "People had their arms crossed," says director Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda), recalling the resistance he met while assembling talent for his adaptation. "They'd have a very stern look on their face, like, 'What are you doing to my book?' "

Osborne, 45, has his own history with the novella — his wife gave him a copy 25 years ago, when they were students. "She would quote from the book," he remembers, " 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.' " So when French studio ON Entertainment approached Osborne in 2010 to adapt an English-language version of The Little Prince (on a budget of $60 million), he was intrigued but also wary. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there could be a movie that celebrates and protects this book — or would any movie only hurt it? I didn't say yes until I had cracked the idea."

Osborne's solution was to build a framing story around the book, setting the film in the Pixar-style CGI world of a 9-year-old girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) who connects with the old man next door (Bridges). He turns out to be the aviator-narrator who shares the tale of the Little Prince in flashback sequences rendered in delicate stop-motion paper-and-clay animation. "I wanted that world to be connected to the paper pages of the book," says Osborne.

The film, which will be released in the U.S. by Paramount Animation on March 18, arrives in Santa Barbara already something of a hit — it has grossed $100 million overseas — which is another reason Durling is excited to have it open his festival. Like everyone else, he has a personal connection to the story: "It was the first book I read learning French in high school."

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Santa Barbara Film Festival
Feb. 3-13
Santa Barbara, Calif.

Who's Heading Up the 101 for This Year's Festival

• Johnny Depp (Black Mass): Maltin Modern Master Award, presented by producer Scott Cooper, on Feb. 4

• Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight): American Riviera Award on Feb. 5

• Elizabeth Banks and Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), Geza Rohrig (Son of Saul), Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl): Virtuosos Awards on Feb. 6

• Brie Larson (Room) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn): outstanding performer of the year on Feb. 8

• Sylvester Stallone (Creed): Montecito Award on Feb. 9

• Rooney Mara (Carol): Cinema Vanguard Award on Feb. 12

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