Any animated feature screening in Cannes in the wake of Pixar’s universally adored “Inside Out” was bound to seem like an anticlimax. And when the movie in question happens to be an adaptation of one of the most beloved children’s novels of all time, the potential for disappointment looms especially large. But to the sure relief of armchair aviators everywhere, director Mark Osborne’s “The Little Prince” turns out to be a respectful, lovingly reimagined take on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic 1943 tale, which adds all manner of narrative bells and whistles to the author’s slender, lyrical story of friendship between a pilot and a mysterious extraterrestrial voyager, but stays true to its timeless depiction of childhood wonderment at odds with grown-up disillusionment. Independently made (on a reported $80 million budget) by French producer Dimitri Rassam, “The Little Prince” may lack the fast pace and high-concept storytelling of today’s most popular animated fare, but it should strike a solid chord with family audiences around the world (where the film has been heavily presold) and particularly in France, where Paramount opens the film July 29.
Published a year before Saint-Exupery disappeared somewhere over Corsica in his Lockheed P-38 fighter plane, “The Little Prince” took its inspiration from an earlier air disaster, in which the author, trying to break the record time in a Paris-Saigon race, crashed in the Sahara desert, near the Nile delta. From that, Saint-Exupery spun a fanciful, faintly ethereal fable about a downed airman who finds himself face-to-face with a curious, blond-haired young boy who claims to be the sole inhabitant of a distant asteroid (#B-612), and who regales the pilot with tales of the interplanetary travels that eventually brought him to earth.
Those adventures consist largely of meetings with puffed-up, self-important adults who imagine themselves to be powerful despots but are, in fact, just orbiting the universe alone on their own similarly uninhabited rocks. But there are also touches of melancholy romance, in the form of the Prince’s codependent relationship with a very demanding rose (which sends him fleeing B-612 in the first place), and a darkly poetic ending that can be interpreted as either a salvation or a suicide. Seventy years later, the book’s influence can be seen in everything from “The English Patient” to “The Lego Movie.”
The book was scarcely enough material for a feature film, which didn’t stop Hollywood from trying one in 1974 — an ill-advised live-action version, directed by “Singin’ in the Rain’s” Stanley Donen, that padded things out with a suite of unmemorable Lerner and Lowe songs, and one genuinely dazzling Bob Fosse dance routine. For the new film, Osborne (“Kung Fu Panda”) and screenwriters Irena Brignull (“The Boxtrolls”) and Bob Persichetti have taken the generally more effective tack of nesting Saint-Exupery’s story within an elaborate framing device set in the kind of modular modern metropolis prophesied by Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” full of technology and free of wonder.
It’s there that we first meet the otherwise unnamed Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), who lives with her single mom (Rachel McAdams) in cookie-cutter suburbia and spends every waking moment preparing for her entrance into a highly competitive prep school where students are stripped of the vestiges of childhood and molded into serious-minded, pint-sized adults. (The overscheduling of Little Girl’s life registers as a sly nod to the section of Saint-Exupery’s book set on a planet where thirst-quenching pills have been invented to save people the time it takes to drink a glass of water.)
Fortunately for Little Girl, her new next-door neighbor turns out to be an eccentric old Aviator (voiced by the doyen of eccentric old coots, Jeff Bridges), who comes into her life when an errant propeller from his backyard airplane careers into her house, and then sets about telling her his strange desert tale. As he does, “The Little Prince” makes a remarkable stylistic leap from the accomplished but familiar CG environs of these opening scenes (big-eyed, bobble-headed humans; modernist-futurist design influences) into 2D stop-motion animation, bringing the world of Saint-Exupery’s original story to life in beautiful handcrafted images based on the author’s own crudely elegant watercolors (seen in the book’s first printing and all subsequent editions).
And that is how “The Little Prince” introduces us to its title character (well voiced by Riley Osborne, the director’s son), his forlorn Rose (Marion Cotillard), and the fellow travelers — some helpful, some useless, some faintly menacing — he encounters on his journey: a Conceited Man (Ricky Gervais) who craves the applause of a nonexistent crowd; a King (Bud Cort) who presides over an empty realm; a Businessman (Albert Brooks) who claims to own all the stars in the heavens; a sinuous desert Snake (Benicio Del Toro); and a wild Fox (James Franco) who yearns to be tamed.
These scenes are a joy to behold — a bliss-out of brightly colored paper and hand-molded clay that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the texturally varied and vibrant stop-motion work seen in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Henry Selick’s “Coraline.” But after 20 minutes or so, “The Little Prince” returns us to the CG present and a somewhat overlong midsection in which Little Girl suffers the de rigueur recriminations of mom and is forced to distance herself from her new friend. Things pick up again around the one-hour mark, when Little Girl takes flight herself in Aviator’s plane and ends up in a topsy-turvy alterna-universe where grown-ups rule the roost and the now-adolescent Prince (Paul Rudd) toils as a lowly nobody, having himself forgotten who he really is.
“The Little Prince” plays things relatively straight and safe from there, with the sort of antic, big-energy climax common to nearly all mass-market blockbusters, animated or otherwise. But even then, the film remains a consistent visual treat (the computer animation is more inspired in this section, with the grown-ups depicted as a colorless, zombified mass of tall, narrow bodies) and always echoes Saint-Exupery’s core theme of looking at the world through the hopeful, uncorrupted eyes of a child, where sometimes what appears to be a hat may in fact be a boa constrictor with an elephant inside.
In lieu of traditional musical numbers, composers Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey provide a suitably wispy, wistful underscore, interlaced with a few original ballads performed by French chanteuse Camille and several classic chansons francises from the immortal Charles Trenet.