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In the deconstructed French fairy tale The Lost Prince (Le Prince oublié), a single dad refuses to leave the world of make-believe he’s built over the years for his 11-year-old daughter, who’s growing up way faster than he’d care to admit. He’s so obsessed with keeping the status quo, until he eventually embraces the reality of adolescence, that the film could be subtitled: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept My Child’s Puberty.
Somewhere between The Princess Bride and Inside Out, with a dash of Degrassi Junior High tossed in for teen angst purposes, this latest feature from The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius is both a coming-of-age story set just outside Paris and a meta-fictional take on the kind of family-friendly fantasies usually made by The Walt Disney Company. Cleverly conceived if a tad too cute, and, in its second half, too predictable, this Pathé release looks to perform modestly in France despite a purported $26 million budget and the draw of Intouchables star Omar Sy.
Sy plays Djibi, a widowed father whose entire life revolves around that of his daughter, Sofia, a girl we first meet when she’s a rambunctious if obedient 8-year-old (Keyla Fala), and then pick up three years later when she’s 11 (Sarah Gaye) and about to enter junior high. Initially enamored by her dad’s bedtime stories, Sofia is turning into a young adult who needs some serious alone time at night, not to mention time to exchange texts with a boy in her class, Max (Néotis Ronzon), who seems to have caught her eye.
Djibi is clearly not ready for the onslaught of Sofia’s pubescence, his emotional state reflected in the candy-colored fantasy world he visits in his mind each night while telling stories. In that world, which takes on the guise of an old Hollywood studio lot filled with costumed actors and other assorted creatures all there to guide Sofia toward sleep, Djibi has always been The Prince — the star of the show and his daughter’s hero. Now he’s being replaced by Max and relegated to secondary roles, joining his nemesis, Pritprout (François Damiens), in a quest to get back to top billing status. Back in the real world, Djibi should probably talk to a child psychologist, or at least read one book on parenting to know he’s going about it all wrong.
Written by Bruno Merle, Noé Debré and Hazanavicius, the script amusingly depicts Djibi’s struggle to contend with Sofia’s transformation as it plays out in the candyland of his creation. Just like a first-rate actor whose star status has dwindled, Djibi finds himself booted from his prestigious trailer on the studio lot and sent to live in a tiny bungalow in what looks like the equivalent of the San Fernando Valley. He’s no longer cast to play the lead part, just like Sofia no longer sees him as the only man in her life.
Cutting back and forth between reality and make-believe, a bit too systematically at times, the two narratives progress alongside a subplot involving Djibi’s encounter with a new next-door neighbor, Clotilde (Bérénice Bejo), who appears in both worlds as well. When Djibi and his daughter have a major spat after she tries to sneak out to a party with Max, Sofia gets punished and then banishes her father to a “forgotten” lair far below ground, where other characters from her childhood have come to rest. (The lair is reminiscent of the toy purgatory that Bing Bong is confined to in Pixar’s Inside Out, a movie that comes to mind several times here.)
If there’s enough inventiveness in the first half to give the film sufficient mileage, things evolve all-too familiarly once Djibi has to find his way back to his daughter’s heart and mind, with a long denouement that heads exactly where you’d expect. Add to that a rather ridiculous coda that tries to sugarcoat the ending, and The Lost Prince winds up turning into something less original than its initial conceit.
Still, for a commercial venture — or film grand public, as they say in France — meant to please both children and adults alike, the movie maintains a certain charm factor. Sy is well cast as a loving and easygoing dad who has some major daddy-ing issues he needs to deal with, and he manages to draw a few good laughs early on. Bejo is also enjoyable as a clutzy but well-meaning busybody of a neighbor, even if her character’s relationship with Djibi seems telegraphed to work out from the start.
Like in most of Hazanavicius’ work, production values are at a high level, with regular DP Guillaume Shiffman providing a vibrant (at times too vibrant) color palette, and set designer Laurent Ott (Elle) building strong contrasts between the real world of Djibi’s apartment and the cartoonish one of his imagination. The score by Howard Shore (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), with its flourishes and emotional highlights, brings The Lost Prince way closer to Hollywood than your standard French kids flick.
Production companies: Prélude, Pathé Films, StudioCanal
Cast: Omar Sy, Bérénice Bejo, François Damiens, Sarah Gaye, Keyla Fala, Néotis Ronzon
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriters: Bruno Merle, Noé Debré, Michel Hazanavicius
Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Jonathan Blumental
Executive producer: Daniel Delume
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Laurent Ott
Costume designer: Sabrina Riccardi
Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion
Composer: Howard Shore
Casting director: Stéphane Touitou
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