Thursday, March 24, 2016

J’y Gagne: Mark Osborne’s Le Petit Prince

There was a time only a month ago, in fact! when I thought Le Petit Prince was never coming out. In December 2014, I’d seen the trailer for Mark Osborne’s animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 children’s book and was dazzled by the animation set to a Lily Allen cover of Keane’s "Somewhere Only We Know." Months later, a quick Google search informed me that the film had actually been released in France in mid-summer 2015.  And, although the English voices were recorded first, it would be another seven months before the English dub would be available to audiences, though mainly on the festival circuit. Last month, Le Petit Prince opened to a limited theatrical release in Quebec, and two weeks ago (as The Little Prince) the movie finally opened in the rest of Canada. The film had been slated for theatres in the United States as well; however, at the last minute, Paramount dropped Le Petit Prince and distribution rights were acquired by Netflix.

I first read Le Petit Prince in French, in a grade eleven classroom. It was our assigned novel that year. Saint-Exupéry’s story of a pilot crash landing in the Sahara and encountering a mysterious golden-haired boy from outer space (think David Bowie, but like 8) instantly became one of my favourites. Osborne’s Le Petit Prince is delightful in many ways, but it’s not the book. Purists, take note.

For starters, writers Irena Brignull and Bob Perischetti have added a fresh new frame narrative to lend some context to Saint-Exupéry’s original story. The aviator from the Sahara is old now, living alone in a dilapidated house in middle of a sterile, modern suburb. A young girl and her single mother move next door in order to be closer to a prestigious elementary school; the mother (Rachel McAdams) is a high-strung, type-A personality that wants the best for her daughter. The little girl (Mackenzie Foy) is her mom’s tiny double: diligent, bright, hard-working, and ambitious. Mother and daughter have set out a rigorous summer study schedule they call “The Life Plan” in order to prepare for the upcoming school year. The Little Girl is set to fulfill mom’s wish for her to become “a wonderful grown up,” until a propeller from the neighbouring yard crashes through the kitchen wall. The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) apologizes and leaves the little girl a jar of pennies as compensation. The two become fast friends even though “The Life Plan” doesn’t allow for it. Over the course of their unlikely but adorable friendship that summer, The Aviator tells her the story of his encounter with The Little Prince many years ago, in a series of beautifully created installments.

The new framing story works well, for the most part. The Aviator, with his white beard and twinkly blue eyes, is kind and loveable, and the story of the Little Girl’s effort to prepare for adult life is uncomfortably relevant in today’s increasingly competitive society. If there is a villain in the framing story, it’s the mother yet her fear is so palpable and her intentions so well-meaning that it’s easy to sympathize with her. The Little Girl’s story grounds the original text and maintains its spirit throughout: it buzzes with questions about imagination, friendship, and the cost of growing up. That said, the framing story also takes up a lot of the film. It includes a long build up, and an even longer denouement. Saint-Exupéry’s story ends exactly as readers have come to expect but it ends around the halfway mark and is followed by a weak, confusing dream sequence that takes up a full half hour. Here, the frame narrative bleeds into the original text in a nicely animated but misguided and underwhelming anticlimax that severely undercuts the emotional intensity of the original story.

While the writers may have made a couple missteps, Le Petit Prince’s English-language voice actors are unarguably superb. The book’s global popularity drew in a team of Hollywood A-Listers whose performances shine with genuine enthusiasm. Even Mark Osborne’s son (Riley Osborne), who wound up voicing The Little Prince mainly because he was so good at reading lines during rehearsals, exhibits some astonishing acting chops. Ricky Gervais as The Conceited Man was a welcome surprise, and Marion Cotillard was the only choice for The Rose; she voices the character in both the English and French versions. Even Paul Rudd gave some humanity to a strange, confusing character that should not have existed and I give him credit for that.

At the end of the day, though, it’s the animation that really sells Osborne’s Le Petit Prince. The film’s trailer hinted early on that multiple animation styles would be used for the feature. While the Little Girl’s story is computer animated with the well-executed but conventional large-eyed, bobble-head figures we’ve come to expect from computer animated fare, the Prince’s story is filmed in stunning stop motion. The animated figures of The Aviator, the Fox, and The Prince look like Saint-Exupéry’s iconic watercolour illustrations have come to life 73 years later. The landscapes are colourful and textured, inspiring as much wonder and awe as the book that came before it. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

For this reason, Le Petit Prince is essential viewing for anyone who’s ever read the novel. It’s imperfect, and doesn’t always make sense, but it’s creative and full of whimsy, a sometimes clunky labour of love. As The Fox says to The Little Prince in chapter 21, “what is essential” is indeed “invisible to the eye,” but what the eye sees in this long-awaited adaptation of one of the 20th century’s most beloved texts is nonetheless a spellbinding experience in its own right.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.  

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