The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella about an aeronaut who meets a boy from outer space, felt, 70 years ago, like a dream—it took place in a world of unprocessed psychology, the thoughts and feelings you might have before you even realize you’re thinking and feeling. The prince loved a rose, which loved him back but tormented him with demands. He flew from asteroid to asteroid, meeting lonely denizens of the drab adult world: an acquisitive businessman, a narcissist, an impotent ruler. Having arrived at the Sahara, he befriended a fox, entranced the aviator, and made a deathly bargain with a snake. The Little Prince was all imagination and couldn’t remain on Earth. So the aviator turned him into something unearthly: a book.
And then Mark Osborne turned him into a movie. Parts of the original film The Little Prince, distributed by Netflix, hint at the source’s dreamlike qualities.* The animation (a mix of CG and stop-motion pulled off beautifully by Lou Romano and Céline Desrumaux) is expressive but not precise. Richard Harvey and Hans Zimmer’s twinkling celestial score sounds like a childhood music box heard through internal fog.* But the book’s unique tone—its peculiar openness, clarity, and lyricism—is hard to sustain over 100-plus minutes of plot-driven screen time. With Osborne’s adaptation, we get all the necessary cinematic trappings: character development, jokes, wholesome messaging (friendship is important), a bad guy to escape, a plane to be whisked away from a ginormous trash compactor at the last possible moment. If Saint-Exupéry offered readers a petite, queer-tasting square of some delicate cake they’d never heard of, Netflix has served up a familiar, fragrant, well-balanced meal. You’ll enjoy it, but it’s the cake you’ll remember.
Osborne made the smart and interesting choice not to simply adapt his source material but to build a framing story around it. His Little Prince begins with “the Little Girl” (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), a joyless kid being groomed by her mother (Rachel McAdams) to start at an elite academy, where she’ll learn to “be essential.” Through the school, full of bureaucrats conducting spooky, inscrutable exams, we get a glimpse of a grown-up world of implacable boredom and ennui. Working people are sad and uninspired—including the Little Girl’s overprotective mom, who has mapped out every minute of her daughter’s life on a huge magnetic chart. (“You’re my senior VP,” she tells her child affectionately.) The Little Girl’s summer vacation is to be spent studying, doing aerobics, and preparing to “adult”—a terrifying prospect, indeed.
But then she chances upon her batty old neighbor, the Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who shares with her the illustrated pages he made describing his long-ago encounter with the Little Prince. When we enter the Aviator’s memory, or maybe his diary, the CG animation shifts to stop-motion. Here, Osborne repackages scenes beloved from the book: The Aviator draws the Prince three unsatisfactory sheep and then a box with a theoretical sheep inside, thus cementing their friendship; the prince tames a fox; the prince’s rose begs him to enclose her in a glass dome to protect her from the cold. (That hothouse metaphor acquires new meaning in the Little Girl’s universe of stifling parents and teachers.)
And it’s here that the film comes close to rivaling the novella’s visual beauty, especially with the wide-faced, fire-colored fox, whose enormous wavy tail is pure delight—a bit of extravagance for its own sake that aligns with the story’s rejection of the “essential.” That fox, by the way, is voiced by James Franco, his light delivery an asset to the stark loveliness of the original text: “I have no need of you, and you have no need of me. … But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.”
Man, the first half of this movie is good. Its filmified goodness only approximates the aerial mysteries of Saint-Exupéry’s book, but the twining narratives of the Little Girl and the Little Prince—held together by the Aviator, a friend to both—so artfully blend poetry and gentle humor that you don’t care. There’s a warmth to these characters that underscores the degree to which movie nights in 2016 might be what reading aloud was in 1943. In the film, the Aviator gives the Little Girl pages of his story (which will become Saint-Exupéry’s novella) because he thinks she “could use a friend.” (“That’s OK, nobody understands it anyway,” he adds, in a sly comment on the original’s koanlike self-possession.) If Saint-Exupéry was primarily concerned with representing the wonderment of childhood and the joys of the imagination, Osborne wants to remind us about love. The Little Girl loves the Aviator and, through him, comes to love the Little Prince. Her reading doesn’t just unlock the world of the possible—it is an act of connection. It helps her “see with [her] heart.”
The second half of the film, though, upends the tone and strategy of the first. Hour No. 2 shoves characters into an airplane and sends them whirling through loops of plot, which has the effect of forcing a distracted Osborne to abandon all subtlety where his themes are concerned. The Aviator falls ill, and the Little Girl goes off in search of the Little Prince. She ends up on a bleak, urban planet inhabited only by adults, including some of the absurd allegorical personalities first sketched by Saint-Exupéry. The titular royal has grown up; he’s a sad-hearted janitor in the employ of a craven bully known as the Businessman, who wants to own the stars. The Little Girl must help “Mr. Prince” remember who he is and escape. In the process, she has a shot at shattering the glass dome in which the stars are imprisoned.
Rest assured that what comes next meets the kids’ movie quota for sweetness and uplift. Yet the Little Girl’s adventures with Mr. Prince, while charming and funny and scary, are purged of strangeness. There is a vain policeman and an “essential book of all that is essential” but nothing surprising; certainly, no hats turn out to be boa constrictors on closer inspection. Osborne hasn’t crashed the plane; he’s just skillfully piloted it back into Earth’s atmosphere, where it zips along until the last few sentimental callbacks to Saint-Exupéry herald a confident landing.
But The Little Prince needs unworldliness—both in the sense that its characters hail from outer space and in the clear-eyed naïveté of its creations. Anything too didactic, too useful feels suspect. The more insistently the movie articulates its ode to imagination, the less spontaneous and the more straitjacketed it feels.
Even in its most earthbound moments, Netflix’s The Little Prince does a lot right. It addresses the novella’s serious woman deficit, not only by creating the Little Girl and her mother, but—fascinatingly and enchantingly—through the soundtrack. Harvey and Zimmer’s score often features a female vocalist, Camille, either singing or whispering. Is she the Prince’s lost rose, a profoundly unknowable presence throughout the story? Some aspect of the Little Girl’s psyche, beckoning her onward?
It’s important to remember that Saint-Exupéry wasn’t just an aristocratic writer and poet—he was an aviator. (I don’t know if Osborne can fly a plane, but he did manage to direct Kung Fu Panda, which counts for something.) The Frenchman believed in books as modes of transport, and maybe the most thoughtful tribute the Netflix team can pay him is to ferry a new audience back to his original work. In that case, I won’t be so churlish as to trash this Little Prince. As a film, it does the “essential”—the novella will do the rest.
Correction, Aug. 9, 2016: This review originally stated that The Little Prince is a Netflix original. Netflix acquired the film from Paramount. It also stated that Hans Zimmer wrote the score to The Little Prince. The score was composed by Zimmer and Richard Harvey.