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Hailed as one of the most expensive French animated feature films ever made (budgeted at an alleged $80 million), On Animation Studio’s adaptation of The Little Prince represents an ambitious gamble that looks like a sure bet commercially but which, artistically, shortchanges its source material. Directed by Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda), the script by Irena Brignull (The Boxtrolls) and Bob Persichetti (Disney’s Tarzan and Mulan, as well as Puss in Boots) takes Antoine de Saint-Exupery‘s ageless, delicate 1942 story, deep fries it in hydrogenated fat and then encases it in a corn-syrup-based frame story that was clearly conceived to make the source material’s unsettling message about mortality and the evanescence of innocence more palatable for contemporary audiences.
Kitted out with a big name voice cast (an eclectic bunch that includes Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard and James Franco) for the Anglophone version, the package has been acquired by Paramount for the US and major distributors elsewhere and surely squillions will be spent in marketing this for its summer release. But while familiarity in Europe with the source material will ensure interest, especially in France where Le Petit Prince is merchandized up the wazoo already, elsewhere it will be a much trickier sell.
It makes a certain amount of sense that the filmmakers would choose to flesh out the running time with extra material given that the original text is a slim volume, easily readable over a one or two bedtime sittings depending on how tired your child is. The most typical solution chosen by numerous other adaptations for stage and screen, like Stanley Donen‘s trippy, somewhat sinister 1974 version (with Bob Fosse as the Snake!), is to expand with songs.
Here, the filmmakers have taken an admirably risky gambit and opted instead to have the original story of the Little Prince (which already has its own baked framing device) told in a book that’s being written and illustrated in the modern day by an elderly aviator (voiced by Bridges). His one and only reader is his nine-year-old neighbor (Mackenzie Foy), a dutiful only child who’s had her childhood written out of the schedule by her single mom (Rachel McAdams), a well-meaning helicopter parent who has literally mapped out her daughter’s life using a magnetized planning board that must have required half an aisle’s worth of loot from Office Depot.
That whole present-day, “real world” story is incarnated by computer animation, giving the characters exaggerated, “cartoony” features with big eyes and caricatured expressions but with all the high-spec modelling, dimensionality, and attention to light sources and shading audiences have come to expect from CGI stories. Meanwhile, the Little Prince’s story that the aviator tells is executed via stop-motion animation, directed by Jamie Caliri, a contrasting technique that makes it much easier for viewers to understand the difference between these two worlds. This part of the film is simply exquisite, not just because it’s immaculately executed but also because the papery textures of the characters, apt but not too-literal translations of the Saint-Exupery’s illustrations, evokes their fragility. For all the hyperrealism of the CGI sections, the way that, say, the tail of the Fox (Franco) and the scarf of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) wave in sync in the wind seems infinitely more rich, palpable and evocative of the story’s core themes than any other line of dialogue invented by Brignull and Persichetti.
At heart, the film’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t seem to have any faith in its audience’s emotional intelligence. It effectively neuters all the original story’s elusive, poetic, melancholy qualities by spelling things out in capital letters, from the way it keeps making the little girl ask literal-minded questions about the physics of the Little Prince’s world to constantly reiterating the filmmakers’ message. And just to underscore their lack of faith in getting the ideas across of this mid-century work of whimsy and despair, there’s a big old action sequence gussied up for the last act in which the little girl goes off into space to find a now-grown Little Prince in order to reunite him with his one true love, the rose (Cotillard).
Nevertheless, some viewers may be much more forgiving and open to this film’s brand of didactic, pseudo-literary schmaltz. For the most part, it’s more than competently made, especially the background designs that create — in the framing device — a dystopian suburbia that’s one part The Truman Show and two parts Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, all done in muted greys, olives and dusty teals.The score credited to Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey, featuring the voice of Camille has sweep without overwhelming the action, and in all other technical respects it’s a perfectly respectable piece of work. At least when it comes out on home-entertainment platforms viewers will have the option of cutting to all the stop-motion bits based on Saint-Exupery and leaving the rest out, which will make a short just long enough for pre-bedtime viewing.
Production companies: An On Animation Studio production
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie Foy, Rachel McAdams, Riley Osborne,Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Albert Brooks
Director: Mark Osborne
Screenwriter:Irena Brignull, Bob Persichetti, based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Producer: Dimitri Rassam, Aton Soumache, Alexis Vonarb
Executive producers: Jinko Gotoh, Mark Osborne
Director of photography:
Editors: Matt Landon, Carole Kravetz
Production designer: Lou Romano, Celine Desrumaux
Character designer: Peter de Seve
Stop-motion creative director: Jamie Caliri
Composers: Hans Zimmer, Richard Harvey
Casting: Sarah Finn
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 107 minutes
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