Parents are beings anonymously bestowed with the responsibility of protecting their children from their own fears. Fear is thus transmitted and embedded into the habits and reflexes that follow all kids till, and if, they grow to parent their own offspring . . . and on and on it goes. That’s all part and parcel of parental love. They have been prepared for this responsibility as they entered adulthood. The main difference between an adult and a child is that where the latter finds wonder the former wonders what they’ve found. Adulthood starts as a form of chronic doubt, a kicking insecurity that suggests everything could, and will, be lost at any time and a hanging hope that everything could, and should, be gained at one precious point in time: They call it opportunity. And an adult’s biggest fear is to miss that opportunity, or worse, once missed, that their children will do so only to conform their self to the prospects of protecting whatever they haven’t lost so far. Life, adults learn, is a process of loss, “a losing game” (sorry Amy) . . . “and death is always near” (you’re welcome Jim).
The modern world, the modern city, the model of modernity upon which all civilizations were built emerged originally from this primal fear, which ended in the invention of comfort. Comfort at its prime is meant to isolate people in a gigantic bubble of sameness wherein nothing changes. Change is the ultimate form of discomfort. We know that. We don’t like it. Growth we like. But growth’s not change, no it ain’t if it’s meant to be intentional, which renders it development. Innovation, technological innovation that is (is there any other kind?), is the only thing left for an adult to be surprised, to dust their sense of wonder off, for they have learned that in life surprises should never be left to chance.
The Little Prince opens with an aerial shot, a sky-shot, Saint-Exuperian, of a city that then morphs into a suburb which very much resembles a computer’s insides seen from afar. Cybernetic guts look very much like a prototypical urban design. And then we get into the waiting room of a most respected educational institution where a prototypical mother rehearses with her prototypical daughter before they get into the academic tryouts that will put her right at the axis of success. The last child who tried, by the way, walks out almost in a state of catatonia with both his parents disconsolately crying and comforting each other to the terrified gaze of all present waiters. It’s, to her chagrin, The Little Girl’s turn. You can nearly predict the outcome, but not the way the resourceful mother finds around, for which she elaborates a complicated schedule through the summer so that the girl can prepare herself for success . . . again.
But chance is inevitable, even in the most computerized of environments. Just to the left (or right, depending on whether you’re inside or outside, quite a difference) of their recently purchased house there’s this weird little structure the mother doesn’t hesitate to remind the daughter was the reason behind how they could afford the place they’re in at the district which secured a place for her in the Academy that has just rejected her. The weird house is inhabited by a weirder old man who turns out to be an obsessed aviator doing his best to get his airplane going once again. Only the propeller flies . . . to The Little Girl’s house, from which a lasting bond and a beautiful friendship ensues: Just at the two opposite poles of a single life-span.
Yet the friendship doesn’t come without complications, particularly from the girl’s side. Predictably, the girl starts hating the elder loon that was a jiffy short of killing her and left a fault so big in her wall that Saint Andreas had no other choice but to kneel down and pray for them both. The fault, however, is quickly transformed into a crack and the crack into a threshold through which the girl enters into another world, a colorful one, the kind of world for which she wasn’t prepared for. Her mom was busy preparing her for success, for independence, for financial and emotional resilience, the kind that can bear any kind of abandonment and transform loneliness into a sign of absolute autonomy and accomplished unattainability: The true trademark of ultimate height. No room for friends here.
And how hard does the girl try not to make a friend — till she discovers friendship. This is what The Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”) really opens for her. And for us, he opens a beautiful path towards a new form of suspension of misbelief, for in the back of our heads we cannot help but associate The Aviator with the author that drove us to the theater in the first place. The premise of The Little Prince goes on to propound: Let’s imagine that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was still alive, that he never got lost, but rather lost his way home and went on to disappear in the American suburbia, where he divested himself of all prestige and richness only to devote himself to one and only enterprise: Start his plane again in order to finish his journey. A person like him and a girl like our girl is a match made in heaven, or, better yet, up in the sky.
Perhaps greatest fault of The Little Prince was that it opened in Cannes almost next to 2015’s animation darling: “Inside Out” (not even Charlie Kaufman’s startling turn to animation, which gave us the kind of masterwork that will only get better with time, “Anomalisa,” was able to compete with it). And, technically, there was no competition. The 3D CG animation of The Little Prince is average at best. Mark Osborne, better known for “Kung Fu Panda,” could not get marble out of the bubbly figures modeled by computerized parameters. But then we see the stop-motion animation, and we cannot help but stop breathing in amazement. The sequences narrating The Aviator’s story, which literally (and literarily) pop out of Saint-Exupéry’s classic, give such a breathtaking rendition to the author’s dignified watercolors that it is difficult not to feel at times that the book itself has come to life. And then you have the little prince’s voice (who’s, incidentally, Osborne’s son Riley), which acutely conveys both the vulnerability and profound maturity of the iconic character. And then we have the laugh, the “meaty beaty big and bouncy” laugh that resonates in every corner of what is alive.
It is worth noting that the little prince’s fable is related in the movie as a memory, not as a fiction. This is crucial for the narrative purposes of the film, since this is the fresh memory of an old man remembering as vividly as a young child does. Do you remember the way you remembered as a kid, when your beautiful mind was still subject to the tricks of the thin line that shored your memory and your imagination — when fictions were as vivid as a memories are . . . and just as real? Liquid-like the one and grained-ground the other. Waves and tracks that time shall erase.
The use of stop-motion thus gives a three-dimensionality to Osborn’s film that is only occasionally hindered by the utilitarian use of CGI. The film’s main theme, however, is what is best represented of the little masterpiece on which it is based: Never forget. Because forgetting is easy once the journey towards adulthood starts, once one discovers how “essential” being comfortable has become — then one forgets how wonderful the “inessential” was in the first place . . . a slumber in the middle of a sunset, a flower in the middle of a garden, a rose in the middle of a tiny planet, a laugh in the middle of the desert, a star in the middle of the night. That’s what The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, “The Conjuring”) discovers in her journey back to her own childhood, to the right she has to it, to claim it and to name it.
The greatest contribution that the film does to the zillion adaptations of Saint-Exupéry’s timeless booklet for the soul (there are 16 only for the screen, not counting the ballets, operas, musicals, plays, novels, records, etc.) lies on the hearty script of Irena Brignull (likely where all the complexity and emotional intensity comes from, which reminds us of her equally passionate, but mediocrely directed, “Skellig: The Owl Man”) and Bob Persichetti (likely where all the Disney-like antics leaked out). The script for The Little Prince, I must say, is better than the execution — and the execution, I should add, is already quite good. The climax, is true, becomes a little bit too muddy and, aesthetically, even too cartoonish (i.e., the teenage little prince and his trip back to his planet, and to his former appearance, only now through the Botox of CGI, which takes away much from Antoine’s little guy) and is in a stark contrast with the lyricism of the stop-motion sequences dwelling inside The Aviator’s story along with, one thinks at first, the girl’s imagination — until we get to see hers runs as well by computer generated images.
In spite of it all, the little tale that runs parallel to the little prince’s, the little princess’, makes for a worthy retelling. The introduction of another perspective, a female one, does enrich the original lens and lead us to the place where all children get to see for the first time the end of their own childhood: Death. Death is perhaps the fear that neither adults nor children dare to name, for they don’t even get to fathom it. That requires a true grown-up. That is exactly what The Aviator learns from the otherworldly ruler during this latter’s intergalactic visit. That is precisely what the girl learns from the mundane neighbor during this latter’s inevitable exit. How to say goodbye and how not to forget the wonder we find when we discover something new in what we are used to remember. Baobye.