'The Little Prince:' How Director Mark Osborne Gave the Classic a Modern Update

The Little Prince - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes

Mark Osborne had to overcome plenty of obstacles to bring his independent animated retelling of The Little Prince to the screen — from convincing top talent to board the project to building a stop-motion operation. The director turned down an offer to helm the rather raunchy Seth Rogen animated comedy Sausage Party in order to see The Little Prince take flight. And he even survived what could have been an eleventh-hour disaster when Paramount, the movie's original domestic distributor, decided not to handle the movie's release.

But then Netflix stepped in. The Little Prince, Osborne's adaptation of the 1943 classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, originally debuted in Cannes back in May 2015, going on to win a Cesar Award in France as best animated film before it finally arrived in a handful of U.S. theaters Aug. 5 while also making its debut on the streaming service. 

In retrospect, Osborne — best known for the original Kung Fu Panda, which he co-directed with John Stevenson  — admits that he didn't want the job when he was first approached by French producers Dimitri Rassam and Aton Soumache. “I had a very deep connection to the book [his wife gave it to him while they were dating], so I said, ‘No. You can’t make a movie out of this book; there no way to do it. Everyone has their own version in their imagination,' ” he confesses. “Then I realized there was an opportunity to make a movie about how this book lives in the imagination of the reader, and how this story can be in someone’s life and can actually change the course of their life.”

That involved creating a framing story to surround Saint-Exupery's fable. This new version of The Little Prince focuses on a Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy and based on Osborne’s daughter) whose mother (Rachel McAdams) is preparing her for the world in which they live when her neighbor, the Aviator (Jeff Bridges), introduces her to the fantastic story of the Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son, Riley Osborne), who inhabits an alternate world where anything's possible.

“The book works on different levels, and we wanted the movie to work the same way,” Osborne says, adding that he wanted to stay true to the book while also keeping the spirit of the drawings. “For grown-ups, I hope at the end you are emotional and your child looks over at you and you have a conversation about these big ideas that are going to play into your child’s life.”

The well-known material did help open the door to some meetings, to which Osborne would carry a hand-crafted briefcase with a copy of the book and some early artwork to help convey his ideas. Fortunately, many who got involved were fans of the book, including Bridges, who invited Osborne to his home studio to record dialogue.

Remembering his first meeting with composer Hans Zimmer, Osborne recounts, "The first thing he said to me, with his arms crossed, was ‘What are you doing to my book?' He was in crunch time on another project, but we talked and he fell in love with the project and had brilliant ideas for the music.”

After The Little Prince premiered out of competition at Cannes last year, it grossed roughly $100 million overseas. But its U.S. debut hit a bump when less than one week before a scheduled March 18 opening, then-distributor Paramount confirmed that it would not handle the release. Soon, though, Netflix came aboard as the new U.S. distributor.

Osborne declined to discuss what went down behind the scenes, saying only, "Netflix is an incredible partner. They ‘get’ the movie and can bring it to more people, in one day, than we could have ever imagined. I’m incredibly happy with the turn of events at this moment. This was an unconventional movie."

With a reported budget of $77.5 million, much of the film is computer animation, created at the Montreal animation and VFX studio Mikros Image. The filmmakers also built a stop-motion studio in Montreal for the rest of the work. "We decided reality [the Little Girl’s world] would be computer animation, because that’s the animation market today," Osborne explains. “The heart of the movie — the book, the story within the story, the beating heart of the movie — would be rendered in hand-crafted stop motion. Stop motion is my first love in animation, and it was a way to sort of protect the book, capture what was special and poetic about the book, and give it incredible story contrast. This helped show the gap between childhood imagination and cold reality.”

The director adds that determining how much artistic license to take with the design of the title character was especially tricky, "but in the book, the Aviator gives the reader liberty to change the drawings in our mind. He says, ‘My drawings were never very good.' "

One area of focus was the Little Prince’s eyes. “In the book, the eyes are drawn as little oval circles and they are not filled in, they are not black. In our movie, we made them black discs. It’s different, but it makes perfect sense as an interpretation.”

The filmmakers used replacement animation for the stop motion, replacing the characters' faces, frame by frame, with small puppet faces to get the facial performance.

All of the puppets and faces were hand made. “The heads were sculpted from paper clay; it hardens like clay but was the texture of paper,” Osborne says. “The problem is when it hardens, it shrinks five percent, and when you are doing replacement animation, that can create a lot of differences that you don’t necessarily want. There was a lot of R&D with a lot of people trying to figure out how to sculpt it just right so that when it shrank it still had the level of consistency that we wanted.”

While developing the project, Osborne also took an interest in the R-rated animated feature Sausage Party. “I was actually developing The Little Prince while I was helping the guys develop Sausage Party," he says. "I love both; they were both pushing the boundaries of what animation could be."

“Anything outside of the norm is really exciting," he adds. "Kubo and the Two Strings [Laika’s Aug 19  stop-motion feature] is so exciting.… and I love that Wes Anderson is doing another stop-motion movie [following Fantastic Mr. Fox]. Animation is filmmaking. It’s for anybody and can be anything."