Streaming video services are just made for insomnia. As was the case this very morning when at 3:30am I could no longer lie restless in bed fearing I would wake my lovely wife. So it was that I found myself bringing up My List on Netflix. I was honestly looking for something non sensical that would lull me back to sleep. There was “The Little Prince” waiting for me on the third row, second from the right. I vaguely remembered the story from my time working at Barnes and Noble bookstores back in my college days and figured this was a contender to put me back to sleep. Not knowing the backstory of the film production I was not prepared for the incredible experience about to follow. Yes, that sounds a bit dramatic, but damn, from the storytelling to the perfect blending of animation techniques this was one of the most beautiful and well orchestrated animation films I have had the pleasure of watching.
As a long time animator myself, what makes this film so incredible for me is first and foremost, the story is king. This is not a straight telling of The Little Prince, it’s a story within a story framed around the pressures of a little girl to become a successful adult according to well laid plans of her mother.
“The Little Prince” is the story of, well, a little prince who lives on a tiny planet, an asteroid really, whose tale is told to us by the aviator met the prince after a plane crash. In this modern retelling of the story we meet the Aviator as the eccentric next door neighbor of a very rigid, modern single mom who has instilled a ridiculous “life plan” for her young daughter. This mom and her plan would rival one of those “tiger moms.” Naturally the daughter is intrigued by and befriends the old man who keeps a dilapidated airplane in his back yard.
What differentiates really good filmmaking is the story and storytelling. “It’s the Story Stupid” is a well known refrain throughout our creative industry, yet it’s rare that we see a film actually put the story first. This is one reason I’m so drawn to most things Pixar because of the strength of their storytelling with the first 20 minutes of “Wall-E” the pinnacle example. The storytelling is where the magic of “The Little Prince” is born. This isn’t simple a retelling of the original book, that would been spectacular in and of itself with the animation styles, but it’s in the addition of the “modern world” and modern insecurities with the Mom and daughter that makes the story much more enriching.
The world where Mom, the little girl and the Aviator lives is a very drab and very precise town. The color palate is muted, lots of sharp angles, perfect squares of land, perfect square houses, even the greenery is trimmed into square shapes. Their lives are monotonous. Wake up, brush your teeth, drive to work, go home, eat, go to bed, repeat. Mom is set on getting the little girl into the top prep school, aptly named Werth Academie, with an interview process that feels more like an interrogation than an interview. It seems the way of the world today. The kids have to get ahead so they can get into the best schools, best teams, so they are constantly training and learning. The pressure to perform, even at a young age means some kids just don’t have the time to be…. well, kids.
The lone splash of color in this world is, of course, the Aviator’s house. He’s the eccentric town kook well known to the local police as a nuisance to the uptight neighbors, but completely harmless. The story of “The Little Prince” is revealed as the little girl comes to know the Aviator. It’s this little addition of the modern world as losing sight of imagination and fun that, for me, completely enhances the story and message of the original book.
What makes this film so visually striking is the incredible use of multiple animation styles that are used to perfection to tell different parts of the story and to transport us back and forth from “reality.” Or, perhaps it’s all reality and we just see different parts of reality in different ways. I love to mix animation styles in my work and I just love how seamlessly the styles of animation blend together in this film.
The film starts with animated pencil and brush strokes as the Aviator begins the tale. It’s the Aviator’s drawings that took us through the original book and the style, along with Jeff Bridges’ delivery draws you immediately into the story. Stop action appears when we are listening to the Aviator’s story of the prince and the stories he was told. There is what I would call the “Pixar look,” 3D animation with caricature versions of humans that still look quite realistic. Sure, previous films have mixed animation styles and they’re usually for flashbacks, but no film that I can recall has ever employed mixed animation so incredibly as part of the storytelling process. This required a lot of thought and planning in the story development phase to make this a seamless storytelling experience across the mixed media.
The stop action elements are simply breathtaking at times. The characters look like living, hand carved puppets which pay beautiful homage to the original drawings in the book. The fox almost seems as if he is constructed from wire and paper, he has such a unique look about him. There is a translucency to much of the stop action world with beautiful lighting and lighting effects. The fabric on the plane’s wings seem to flutter in the air. The desert world where the Aviator and Little Prince meet is simply stunning both in the daylight and evening. The stars dangling on a string are reminiscent of a child’s puppet theater. As someone who has made stop action for many MANY years, (starting with 8mm film) this work is very close to my heart and I’m incredibly inspired by the work.
The “real world,” by contrast is rather lifeless. Sure the sun may be out, but there’s a coldness to the world. No stone or blade of grass is out of place, there’s no initiative to do anything differently. In fact, different is frowned upon. This world comes to life in living color whenever the Aviator is a part of it. He’s “that guy” that the neighbors openly despise but secretly wish they could be. There is a familiarity to this world and a subtle nuance with the actions of the characters that makes the world believable. These are characters you would find in your neighborhood, your world if you look around. That’s when animation transcends from “just a cartoon” to a true animated feature story.
That believability is further enhanced by perfect voice casting and directing. There’s a “who’s who” of voice talent in the film and they all just work. Not only the voice itself, but how they act. There’s a tendency for the “bad guy” in feature animation to be over the top cartoonish in the “bad guy” delivery. There’s really none of that here and the overall story is presented much more as live action delivery vs. a child’s cartoon delivery. Just really well done and beyond the interaction between the little girl and the Aviator, I do love Ricky Gervais as the Conceited Man.
At times the film reminded me of “Up” and “Ratatouille” in the subtle nuances of the characters, facial expressions and reactions. They’re real people in a real world completely made up in fantasy. There is a point at which the worlds collide and and it’s all just works. Are we in reality? Are we in a fantasy or a dream? It all feels real and it all fits. I love when filmmakers can take fantasy and just make it so believable and real.
This film, the storytelling and the technical achievements in animation all deserve an opportunity to be judged for an Oscar. I was pleased to learn that Netflix screened the film in some theaters to make it eligible for Oscar consideration. In fact, thanks to Netflix for rescuing this film after Paramount dropped it just one week before its release. It would have been a shame to see this film lost from public viewing.
If you are a fan of good storytelling, regardless of whether you typically watch animation, I would highly encourage you to get a bowl of popcorn and settle in for “The Little Prince.” It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking and one that inspires me to keep animating.