“The Little Prince” is an ode to the wonder and beauty of childhood: to the delight, whimsy, and enchantment that wind their way through a child’s imagination and everyday life. In the newly released film (available on Netflix), director Mark Osborne takes this classic tale and weaves it into a larger narrative, one that breathes new life into the simple story of a boy and his rose.
Rather than merely telling the original story verbatim, this film starts in a modern urban landscape, focusing on a nameless little girl (The Little Girl) who becomes the protagonist. She dwells in a rather dystopian world—gray and austere, with a sort of uniform efficiency reminiscent of “1984” or “The Giver.” Her mother is seeking to get her admitted to a prestigious yet prim private academy.
The mother is a classic helicopter parent: with a panoply of schedules and procedures constructed to help her daughter do well in school and ultimately become the perfect adult. The film here evokes important strands of story author Antoine de Saint-Exúpery’s own writing. At the beginning of the book, he notes that grown-ups care more about numbers, “geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar” than wonder and imagination. “They never ask questions about what really matters,” he writes.
What Love Requires
In the midst of her original enthusiasm for the academy, The Little Girl becomes distracted by her aged, eccentric neighbor: a man whose home is a quaint and whimsical mess compared to the rigid geometric homes surrounding him. With a shabby red plane in his backyard and garden exploding with color and birds, the old man (who we soon realize is The Aviator from “The Little Prince,” and our narrator throughout the film) draws this little girl into his very unscheduled, technicolor world.
From him, she learns the beauty inherent in imagination and play, storytelling and stargazing. As the old aviator tells her the story of The Little Prince, she becomes a real child—a sort of Wendy who befriends an aged Peter Pan.
It’s not that The Little Girl’s mother doesn’t love her. But the film draws out (very powerfully) the ways in which our “adult” world often prefers to put us in controllable boxes: to follow pattern and numbers without deviating from the norm. The Little Girl’s mother, an accountant, finds comfort in this world. But in the story of “The Little Prince,” the little girl learns that to be “tamed” (to love, and be loved) requires more than this.
When The Little Prince meets a fox on earth, he asks if he can play with him. The fox replies,
‘For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…’
‘I’m beginning to understand,’ the little prince said. ‘There’s a flower … I think she’s tamed me…’
Through his friendship with the fox, The Little Prince realizes his rose—even though it’s only one of millions in the universe—is precious, because “she’s the one I’ve watered. She’s the one I put under glass. She’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. She’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars … She’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all.”
The Value of ‘Wasted’ Time
The essence of the film and original book, we are told, is the line (uttered by the fox), “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” But I think the line after is just as, if not more, important—because it captures the essence of The Little Girl’s relationship with The Aviator, and what is lacking in her relationship with her mother: “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that is so important,” the fox tells the little boy.
Love consists of time “wasted”: in minutes and hours and days and years poured out in service and love, in the joy and serendipity of relationship. In loving someone, we learn that time spent together is the end—not the means. The end is each other, not some ultimate “goal” (like attending a prestigious academy or becoming a perfect adult). This is what The Little Prince learns about his rose, and what The Little Girl’s mother (eventually) learns about her daughter.
The first half of the film is almost pitch-perfect in its tone and development. It feels very reminiscent of Disney-Pixar’s film “Up,” with the same charming old house stuck in a modern cityscape, the same sweet friendship between young and old.
Also delightful and impressive is the switch between CG animation (used in the scenes featuring the little girl and aviator), paper cutout animation (used when the story transitions to “The Little Prince” book), and stop-motion animation (used within the story of “The Little Prince” itself). It gives the story multiple dimensions, a beautiful mixture of texture and color and artistry.
The soundtrack is also fantastic: reminiscent of “Ratatouille,” with the romantic old chansons of Charles Trenet and jazzy melodies by Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey. It fits the sweet, quasi-nostalgic feel of the story.
The Movie Stumbles a Little
It is sad that the film, about half to three-fourths of the way through, loses its way a little. Without giving away too much, there’s a point at which The Little Girl finds herself within the old Aviator’s story, seeking out The Little Prince. Everything at this point becomes messy, convoluted, and ultimately disappointing. There are plot holes (How did the little prince get here? What happened between the end of the original tale and this point?), but more frustrating is the diversion from the original ethos and heart of the story. The emphasis rests on side characters in Saint-Exupéry’s story, while the rose gets barely any attention at all.
But the movie redeems itself at the very end: for the surprise of “The Little Prince,” the film, is that it is just as sad as the book. When you read “The Little Prince,” you discover a very deep melancholy to it. This film takes that and translates it into real-world grief and sadness. That can be hard to watch (I was definitely tearing up at the end), but it also may be a very useful movie for parents to watch with their children, to help them understand the nature of loss and grief.
If the movie had built out some crucial parts of the original “Little Prince” narrative (sharing more of the little prince’s relationship with his rose, for instance) while avoiding that bizarre ending twist, this film would be one of the greatest children’s classics I’ve seen. As it is, it gets very very close, and holds its ground against some of Pixar’s best films such as “Up,” “The Incredibles,” and “Finding Nemo.” You should watch it with your family this week.