There’s something sobering about the roll out of The Little Prince, the animated adaptation of the celebrated 1943 children’s novella from Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne. Completed in 2015 as a joint venture between France and Canada, the film spread through foreign markets to strong audience and critical acclaim (including winning the Cesar for best animated film), and was picked up by Paramount for US distribution. Slated for release in America in March of 2016, the film was inexplicably pulled from the schedule only days prior to its release, falling into limbo and facing the possible fate of never seeing a proper US release. Enter Netflix, still an infant in the film distribution world with its critical success thanks to Beasts of No Nation and the less-than-critical-success of its Adam Sandler vehicles, who swooped in and picked the film up, slating it for release on August 5 after small release in a pittance of theaters, giving the biggest film audience in the world the opportunity to see it without circumventing piracy laws. And, as legions of Netflix subscribers woke up Friday morning, there it was, like any other direct to video movie sequel or binge-worthy television show. It seems almost too small for a film with the pedigree of The Little Prince. It’s what big screens are made for.
This feels especially true considering how the book has made its way to the screen. Screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti have recognized that a pure translation from page to screen would fall short of feature length, enveloping the scenes from Antoine de-Saint Exupery’s book with a modern day framing device about a girl (Mackenzie Foy) who meets a crusty old pilot (Jeff Bridges) when her mother (Rachel McAdams) makes the family move in order to get her into a prestigious prep school. It is a pretty basic narrative of a child’s imaginative innocence tamped down by an ambitiously overbearing and overscheduling parent who cannot see the forest for the trees, and its familiar computer generated art style (akin to the work of Pixar and Dreamworks’ biggest hits) reinforces that fact. Shrewdly, Osborne makes this a case of style reinforcing substance, setting the stage for the real world’s drab color palette of slate grays to be brought to life within the scribbled illustrations of a loose leaf manuscript, something exciting, different and new.
The narrative of the little prince (voiced by Riley Osborne), relayed to the child by Bridges’ aviator character (a clear stand-in for de Saint-Exupery, an aviator himself, though a much snappier dresser than the hermit-like man in the film) is designed to be as large a contrast from the doldrums of this little girl’s insanely measured out life (Bridges’ first interaction with his new neighbors involves accidentally wrecking the billboard her mother made to literally plan her daughter’s entire life). Presented in sumptuous, colorful stop-motion animation that lovingly recreates the book’s original illustrations, Osborne succeeds in making the story within the story feel like the escape it was meant to be, a book come to life. Using a papercraft aesthetic, the animation has a glorious crinkly, frayed-edge quality to it that pops off the screen (this is a rare case where a 3D treatment could have been special, one of the aspects of the film denied by Paramount pulling it from a full release) like a crumpled up piece of paper rescued from neglect in the trash bin and smoothed out again. The Little Prince is a film defined by contrast: the contrast of animation style, of color palette, of set design, of the freedom of imagination versus the constriction of a pragmatic life. It can be on the nose how hard Osborne pushes these contrasts born from the framing device, but there remains something innately charming about the wonder of a young mind awakening from the haze of restriction.
The choice to present the material as a story being told does come with a handful of problems, though. Chief among them is the choppy pacing of the narrative in its first half, the spell of the novel constantly penetrated by the girl’s frame story. It is a much more forceful take on the same device used in The Princess Bride, which was sparing in its narrator interruptions once the story really got going. Much of The Little Prince cannot get more than a page or two in before the frame story comes back into the fore. Notably, the reason this feels like an issue can be laid at the feet of how good the adaptation of the book itself is; the art style is so vibrant and engaging that to be torn away can turn into a frustrating experience, a case of marking time until the action starts up again. This is arguably a case of style informing substance as well, as the girl is equally frustrated with her real life, but the approach feels too heavy-handed to fully embrace the choice. As it becomes clear in The Little Prince’s second half that the prince’s story serves to inform the girl’s narrative and not visa versa, the excitement of the stop motion animation fades away and we are left with about an hour of a rather conventional movie until the credits roll. It is a dangerous gambit, and one that works more than it doesn’t in the way it cooks in parallels to the prince’s narrative into the girl’s, even if it abandons the aesthetic that made its first half sing.
It is perhaps selfish to feel a bit defeated by The Little Prince’s small screen distribution. Millions will watch it now, likely far more than would have if it saw traditional release, which is surely a good thing for the evolution of both filmmaking and film distribution in the rapidly changing 21st century. But many of those millions will see it on 13 inch laptops, 7 inch tablets or 4 inch smartphones. It is sad, in a way, that a film predicated on the expansiveness of childlike wonder will feel confined by small screens. While this adaptation of The Little Prince is not perfect, a little too untrusting of its subject matter's ability to stand on its own and a little too direct with its symbolism and theming, there is plenty to like. And a film this aesthetically pleasing, this visually inventive (at times, at least) deserves the big screen treatment it was denied in America. More of the gorgeous stop motion sequences would have been preferable (maybe a DVD extra of the whole little prince story in that style could be in our future, though the Netflix deal likely kills any chance for a Blu-Ray release anyway), but The Little Prince remains special in its own right.