The Little Prince (2016)

three star

The recent animated feature The Little Prince has had an interesting path to reaching American audiences. After earning rave reviews abroad and being advertised at theaters in the States, the film was dropped from its release schedule and unceremoniously dumped on Netflix streaming following months of distribution limbo. I’m far from a connoisseur of modern CG animation. Pixar movies don’t quite excite me in the same way they do for most folks and I’m much likelier to seek out a hand-drawn or stop motion-animated film than a Wreck It Ralph or Big Hero 6 or what have you. I will say, though, that the way The Little Prince has been quietly swept aside baffles me a great deal. It’s by no means a contender for best animated feature of the year or anything (not with Kubo & Zootopia looming large), but it’s at the very least more thoughtful & well-constructed than what I assume (but hopefully will never find out) most people got out of this year’s lesser CG fare: Storks, Trolls, Angry Birds, oh my! And those all made huge profits at the theater. Anyone looking for Pixar-quality storytelling & emotional resonance is likely to enjoy this discarded dark horse on some level, even if it wasn’t my usual taste in entertainment, so it’s weird to see it dismissed so casually on the distribution end of the business.

There’s two dueling storylines in The Little Prince. One is told in a storybook fashion and is based on the popular children’s book of the film’s namesake (which I honestly know mostly from Tumblr posts & friends’ tattoos, not from growing up with it); the other is a coming of age tale in which a young girl befriends a lonely old man. The Little Prince is interesting in the way it never puts too fine of a point on the way the themes of its two halves communicate. Both stories are in some way about the value and difficulty in maintaining companionship, but overall the movie exists as a love letter to childhood imagination. In the film’s own words, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” The old man (voiced by Jeff Bridges), who spends most of his days working on model planes, listening to Dixieland jazz, and recounting the story of the Little Prince to his new school age friend, never forgot the value of play & imagination as he grew older. Every other adult seems to have lost that perspective. As the little girl protagonist faces a rigid summer schedule meant to prepare her for an intensely regimented educational institution, everyone from her own mother to her educational oppressors seem determined to dampen and homogenize her imagination. The old man and his story of the Little Prince offer a (literally) brighter, more exciting future, and a lot of the film’s conflict is generated in the clash of those two ideals.

What drew me into watching this film in the first place, despite it not being my typical thing, was the multimedia approach to its animation. The story of the old man & the young girl is an all-CG, Pixar-reminiscent proposition, one that looks a little like a cheaper version of the medium like Anna and the Moods due to its budgetary limitations. The film begins with a hand-drawn sequence with watercolor added for texture, though, and the titular Little Prince half of the story is told through stop motion animation, something I’m always a sucker for. If the entire film were as interesting to look at as the Little Prince’s claymation worlds, I might be praising it a little more emphatically. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the wraparound CG story quite as worthwhile as the storybook Little Prince vignettes it contains, as it both looked & felt less special in the context of its time, where a CG-animated tale about the value of imagination & individuality are not at all difficult to come by.

I wouldn’t say that The Little Prince would have been a more resounding success if it were all stop motion or hand-drawn. I had some problems with the story too, particularly when its two worlds collide in a third act attempt to transform what was at one time a character-driven familial drama into a cookie cutter action adventure. My main complaint with the film is that outside that last minute stretch, when the film feels least emotionally impactful, its two halves never really feel like a cohesive whole. The stop motion animation version of The Little Prince‘s source material is something very interesting and beautiful to behold; the CG framing device was fine, but not something I would seek out without the titular hook. There’s some clever visualization of the monotonous trudge of time & adult life that colors that half of the film and I’ll admit I teared up at the emotional climax of its story arc once the action adventure shenanigans were put to rest (not that it takes much for me to cry these days; a TV commercial can get me to do that in seconds). I just could never shake the feeling that The Little Prince didn’t fully belong tied to that Pixar-shaped story in the first place. Those more in tune with that genre might be inclined to disagree and I think it’s at least fair to say this film deserved a fairer shake than the one it got, as I’m sure there was an audience out there who would’ve been eager to see it at the theater.

-Brandon Ledet

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