What happens when a beloved fairy tale grows up? This is one of the ideas that Netflix’s latest film “The Little Prince,” based on the famous book “Le Petit Prince” by the French writer/poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, tries to illustrate, taking the familiar story to new grounds.
Whether young or old, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in this fable, which makes it all the more disappointing. Beyond the lovely animation and a few philosophical allegories shown in marked images, this version of the child’s fantasy offers a generic panacea and too many overwrought heartfelt moments that will please a few and fully satisfy even fewer.
When a meticulous mother (Rachel McAdams) moves to the city so her daughter (Mackenzie Foy) can get admitted into a prestigious private school, the two learn their reclusive neighbor (Jeff Bridges), an old man who loves tinkering with aviation equipment, is a little out of the ordinary. Curious and against her mother’s wishes, the little girl visits the old man who shares his story about a Little Prince and his adventures with planes, a wild fox and a unique rose, subsequently immersing herself in a world of immeasurable creative heights she never thought she could go before.
Originally, the film was set to be released in U.S. theaters in March, then its distributor, Paramount Pictures, dropped the film a week before the release date. It was quickly picked up by the streaming service, which put the film on its summer calendar. Five months later, it now has a U.S. streaming audience of an alleged 27 million viewers.
The film, directed by Mark Osborne (“Kung Fu Panda”), has a nostalgic presence, a throwback feel to the 1960s era of animation where Christmas specials featured stop-motion reindeer and nativity tableaux. “The Little Prince” oscillates between stop-motion, computer animation and drawings inspired by the original water colorings painted by Saint-Exupéry. Despite the wonderful assortment of recognizable voices in this film (including Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard and James Franco to name a few), the stop-motion animation is the true star of the film. From the Prince’s wind-affected scarf to a fox’s shifting tail, all of the most indelible images belong to this category of animation, with everything else feeling ironically not as evolved.
Instead of fully engaging in Saint-Exupéry’s understatedly mature story, writers Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti submit it as a story within a story, with the latter serving as meek, too-long affair; It is the sugary cake handing out the prized filling in piecemeal. In the end, we’re left with too much crumbs on our lap.
That’s not to say the cake is all bad. There’s some astute observations about wonderment and mortality between the generations: a story fueled by a little girl’s burst of imagination and grounded by an old man’s sense of ageing reality. “You’re going to make a wonderful grown-up,” the little girl’s mother tells her. But she doesn’t want to grow up too fast. She begins rejecting the uniformed institutions and pragmatic systems her mother ensconces her in that stymie creativity, instead opting for a mentor who will foster unregulated modes of thinking about the world. This, of course, is unrealistic, the little girl soon discovers, because heartbreak and reality’s gravity range is strong, regardless of how high one tries to fly.
It sounds nice, but the film never manages to pack the emotional punch of a fading Bing Bong or master the emotional conservatism of a more nuanced coming-of-age tale, i.e., Takahata’s “Only Yesterday.” Rather, it floats in lukewarm water, teasing us with a great tale and inundating us in a mediocre one.
“The Little Prince” is currently streaming on Netflix!