The Little Prince is an odd marble that orbits our imagination.
With its up-for-discussion adaptational controversies, the French English-speaking film The Little Prince serves as a loose rendering of its seven-decades-old source material by aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Even so, it commands certain gravity over its viewers. When it was rejected from the 2016 Academy Awards Animated Feature Film line-up, fans were crushed. Considering its previous dismissal from a Paramount wide release screening, it’s a mere consolation that The Little Prince now resides in the accessibility of Netflix streaming.
A tale like Little Prince reminds me of childhood classics without sentimental fairy tale happily-ever-afters, such as The Giving Tree, The Lorax, and Where the Wild Things Are, where their authors set their realms in an abstract whimsy that touch not only our hearts, but our memories—their meanings not expired, but elevated once we comprehend them on adult terms. We grow to understand why Dr. Seuss never gave The Lorax a happy ending but ended his story on a boy planting a seed in a wasteland and apprehend why The Giving Tree reminds us of our own parents.
Within its first two minutes, The Little Prince opens in a realm of childhood drawings as the narrator draws a snake with a full belly, misinterpreted into a hat in the eyes of scoffing adults. Even when he refines his drawing into an elephant inside a snake’s belly, improving the picture’s context, the shadows of adults scold him to adhere to the traditional adult prescription of “arithmetic, history, and grammar.”
“I took their advice, and I grew up.”
Through the unfolding petals of stop-motion paper, the film transitions to CGI caricatured realism: the ambience of the workplace and the Little Girl sitting beneath an on-the-nose What Will You Be When You Grow Up-Essential poster as she rehearses her interview for a dreary but prestigious school. As the girl adjusts to the impending school days, the story progressively re-injects small doses of the abstract.
Whenever her affectionate but prestige-compulsive Mother is occupied with work, Little Girl finds herself magnetized toward her kooky old neighbor, voiced richly by Jeff Bridges, the retired Aviator standing in as the narrator for the original Little Prince story. As the Aviator tells the story of his meeting with the titular Prince, the CGI scenery unravels into a gorgeous illustrative stop-motion, for maximum fidelity to its source material, as he divulges how the Prince resided on a lonely planet, how the Prince fell in love with a rose, then abandoned his rose when he didn’t feel adequate enough to love her or feel loved by her.
Fade back into the plainness of the CGI world, where Little Girl invokes the logistics. What was the Prince doing in the desert without food or water? Where were the little boy’s parents? Will the Prince return to his beloved rose? These questions are the homage to the improbabilities of imagination and their intrigue. The girl’s questions parallel the inquiry invoked in the Prince’s story. Why does the man count the star? Why does the man covet after wealth? If you've ever been a child before, you know these eccentric hypotheticals represent our own curiosities about the mechanics of the world and human nature.
Even when adults provide the answers, they can’t always satisfy a child’s comfort. This is a film that can stir up existential emotions in the parents watching with their children. The word “death” is never spoken of but it looms in the shadowy language of the family-friendly script. The Prince tells the Aviator in the flashback/story, when musing about departing, “It would be like an old abandoned shell. There’s nothing sad about an old abandoned shell.” Parents and perceptive children know full well what the poetic language translates to.
Agonizingly, the old man doesn’t deliver on a happy ending for the Prince’s fate in a shrewd attempt to explain his impending death to her. In the book, the ending had always been left in an aching open-endedness where the happy (or bittersweet) conclusion is left entirely to the reader’s (and narrator’s) imagination. Alas, the idea of imagining a happy ending is not enough for the girl, which fuels the flight of the film’s third act.
Returning to the ending of Saint-Exupéry’s source material allows me to partially decipher the movie’s controversial third act. The movie is especially contentious for melding its original story with extreme adaptational tweaks. I dare not spoil the hows. It’s easy to pinpoint when the film launches into the inexplicable for better or worse. Is it a dream? It averts the cliché scene of a waking-up. So is it real, at least in the context of the film? Perhaps that was the point of its third act: the attempt to invent conclusions to the inconclusiveness of life itself.
With all its questions, philosophical, glorious, and criticism-related, The Little Prince is a kaleidoscope into the colors and edges of childhood.