Netflix has only been in the feature film business for about a year, and yet the company has struck gold again, with its acquisition of the French animated film The Little Prince. The movie – based on the seminal 1943 novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – was initially set for a theatrical release back in March, thanks to a distribution deal with Paramount. However, that plan was ultimately dropped for unknown reasons, and Netflix was able to scoop up what has since become the most successful French animated film in cinema history, due to its box office receipts from across the globe. Now it’s available on the streaming service, and viewers can check out the “Netflix original” from the comfort of their own homes.
Yet, with all the hubbub surrounding the film’s release, the question remains if director Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) has crafted a movie worthy of the cherished source material, which stands as one of the most-translated books ever. As the first animated adaptation of the novella, The Little Prince is certainly better equipped to translate the tale of an aviator who encounters a mysterious young boy in the desert to the screen than any of its live-action predecessors. The visual style faithfully renders the illustrated forms of its characters, and the accompanying score by Richard Harvey and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer perfectly complements the thoughtful sense of wonder that underscores the story.
More than simply telegraphing de Saint-Exupéry’s novella into the cinematic format, the screenplay by Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti fleshes out the central fable of the titular Little Prince (voiced by Riley Osborne, son of the film’s director) with an original story of an unnamed young girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) who befriends her elderly neighbor (voiced by Jeff Bridges) and gets caught up in his stories about the Little Prince. This framing device not only makes the more abstract anchor story more palatable to modern audiences, but also develops the philosophical messaging behind the book’s material, making its social commentary and spiritual undertones even more apparent.
In addition, Osborne and his team wisely differentiate between the Little Girl’s story and that of the Little Prince by incorporating both computer animated and stop-motion sequences centered on the two children, respectively. In doing so, the girl’s story retains a more modern sensibility and tone, while the stop-motion used for the prince lends it a nostalgic, otherworldly feel in keeping with the fairy tale nature of the storytelling at hand. The star-studded voice cast for the film – which includes Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd and Albert Brooks, to name a few – is also stellar across the board, with Foy just as much of a standout here as she was in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar two years ago.
If there’s a downside to The Little Prince, it could be that some of its sequences do feel like narrative detours in the context of the film. Yet, even these ultimately contribute to the story, the themes and the greater lesson inherent in de Saint-Exupéry’s work. The dual stories of the film at first struggle to strike the right balance, but this fits the Little Girl’s hesitation to allow herself to be swept away by the fantastical nature of her new friend’s tall tales. As the film progresses, it does embrace this particular aspect more and more, building up to an extended third act that goes so big that it may very well make or break the film for some viewers who fail to recognize the larger implications of how the story plays out.
As it stands though, The Little Prince is a resounding success, bringing more thoughtful provocation to audiences than many of the more mainstream animated films have dared. There’s no need for juvenile humor or cuddly animal characters (minus the presence of this year’s second memorable fox character, following Disney’s Nick Wilde), just a poignant tale about what it means to grow up. In large part due to this universally resonant focus, The Little Prince has already won the Best Animated Feature statuette at the César Awards. Considering the film’s global success, rich subtext and beloved source material, it may very easily slip into this year’s Oscar race as well, giving films like Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets and the upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings an unexpected run for the gold.
Though it takes liberties with the source material, The Little Prince enriches the novella on which it is based, developing its themes and characters into one of the best animated releases of the year.