“The Little Prince”, a co-American/French animated feature based on the classic 1943 children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, proves that animation remains one of the most powerful forms of cinematic storytelling. Directed by Mark Osborne (“Kung Fu Panda”) and featuring a stellar, star-studded voice cast, this is a magical gem.
Paramount was originally on track to distribute “The Little Prince” theatrically back in March, following an overseas release in 2015 (including a screening at Cannes). Why the studio changed course one week from its scheduled release date and dropped distribution plans altogether has never been fully explained. Netflix “instantly” stepped in, taking control of the fate of “The Little Prince”, with the intention of giving the film the special treatment it deserves. That decision should carry the film all the way to Awards Season, possibly providing the online service its first Oscar nomination.
If you’re familiar with the story of The Little Prince – about a little boy who travels to various planets in his plane, encountering animals, humans and a rose – a faithful adaptation of that tale is at the heart of this film. But “The Little Prince” movie is so much more. There’s a wonderfully modern framework – about a friendship that forms between a wide-eyed little girl (voiced by “Interstellar”‘s Mackenzie Foy), who moves-in next door with her uptight mother (Rachel McAdams), and an elderly, eccentric neighbor (voiced by Jeff Bridges) who used to fly a plane.
Mom has designed a “Life Plan” for her daughter (scheduled down to the minute) of what the girl needs to accomplish in order to get into the best private school and eventually become a productive and successful grown-up. But The Little Girl yearns to still be a kid. The old man sees this and soon the girl is spending more and more time with The Aviator while mom is at work. He tells her the story of The Little Prince, in which the young boy discovers the importance of exploring and using one’s imagination.
Growing-up is something everyone HAS to do, but it’s not getting older that’s tough, it’s the forgetting. Having the ability NOT to forget the people we cherished from our youth, the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had – what it feels like to be young and in awe of the world with the hopes of exploring it in various ways. This theme is at the heart of both parallel stories, providing incredible meaning to the characters in them and anyone watching this masterpiece unfold. The multi-layered script incorporates funny, creative and heavy material – often all three simultaneously – summarizing all the raw realities of life.
Animated films, especially those with a child as the main character, don’t often explore subjects such as obsession (structure and perfect order aren’t always healthy), complex family relationships (The Little Girl’s father left her and her mom because he was focused more on his job than them; at one point, in a burst of anger, The Little Girl asks her Mom when she’s going to leave her), sadness, illness and death. But Osborne had the guts to go there, and the results are inspiring. There are a few scenes, even before the rewarding final act, that punch the emotional well-being right out of you. They’re that real.
“The Little Prince” features both CGI (the world of The Little Girl, The Mother and The Aviator) and stop-motion animation (The Little Prince’s literary adventures). The result of this combination of styles is one of the most visually enchanting animated films I’ve ever seen. And on top of the terrific Bridges, McAdams and Foy performances, James Franco, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd, Benicio Del Toro, Marion Cotillard, Paul Giamatti, Albert Brooks (in his third animated film appearance of the summer) and Osborne’s own son, Riley, round-out the splendid voice ensemble.
Each character embodies a different personality, often relatable to someone we know, or may have known, who we should always remember. Even a hand-sewn fox doll adopted by The Little Girl is packed with symbolism. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, highlighted by a wonderful “tick-tock” score, and his collaboration with French singer Camille, on the catchy, charming song, “Turnaround”, are the perfect accompaniment.
There are times when “The Little Prince” reminded me of a couple of Pixar films – “The Incredibles” (the look of the humans and their environments) and “Up” (a similar “Spirit of Adventure”, older man/kid storyline). But this film is an original in every sense, providing all that anyone looks for in a great movie: uniquely memorable characters, humor, drama, excitement and a deep emotional impact.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Little Prince” gets an A.
Running Time: 95 min.