On 30 December 1935, aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, along with his copilot, crashed in the Sahara desert while trying to break a speed record. Although they survived the crash, the ordeal had only begun and several days of dehydration, scorching heat, and subsequent hallucinations were undergone in the desert before they were rescued by a Bedouin tribesman. The trauma became the inciting incident for the writing of one of the 20th century’s most beloved novellas. The Little Prince (2015) tells the tale of a young boy who greets a stranded airman in the Sahara – poor André Prévot (the copilot) doesn’t get a mention – and tells him tales of his adventures on his home planet.
In Mark Osborne’s feature adaptation, which played out of competition at Cannes today, the original story becomes a story within a story and if anything is more about the book than of the book. Osborne and screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti take a leaf out of Pixar’s book before getting down to Saint-Exupéry’s. Their vision of a modern world ruled by conformity and a soul destroying search for excellence could be an off cut from the early scenes of 2004’s The Incredibles. An unnamed little girl (Mackenzie Foy) is being groomed to enter an elite academy by her tight- laced mother (Rachel McAdams), and when she fluffs the interview, the mother sells her house and buys one within the school’s catchment area.
The house price is low because the next door neighbour is an eccentric aviator (Jeff Bridges in his best old coot) whose experiment cause scandal and consternation and frequent visits from the local police. This is familiar and slightly unconvincing territory. The Legoland conformity and neo-fascist greyness doesn’t seem to allow for the aviator’s apparent freedom, nor for any spark of affection between mother and daughter. With her tight ponytail and suit and tie, there also seems to be a latent sexism in the portrayal of the absentee single mother who puts her career before her daughter and pushes her to achieve social success as a projection of her own ambition. Once the little girl and the aviator start to hang out, the picture improves, as he tells the girl the story of the Little Prince and the crash in the desert. This – the meat of the book – is actually told in beautiful stop motion animation based on the book’s original and iconic water-coloured illustrations. Unfortunately, the film sees this all as backstory and so some of the best moments of the book are rushed through – in particular the meeting, and friendship, of the Little Prince and the Fox.
When the aviator begins to ail and the girl feels the pressure of her new school’s first day looming she steals the backyard bi-plane and sets off with her toy fox, which has magically come to life, to find the Little Prince. What follows is a mini-movie itself, as the girl and fox visit a planet run by the Businessman (Albert Brooks), who has bought all the stars and stored them away. There are flashes of greatness here – Ricky Gervais has a small role as the conceited man, which isn’t a push for him but is still fun and Benicio del Toro makes his third Cannes appearance voicing the snake – however, Osborne, who initially got his kicks with Kung Fu Panda, doesn’t trust his source material and the film becomes about collecting the pages of the story and the effect the story might have on the people who hear it, rather than the telling of the story itself. Maybe there simply wasn’t enough narrative for a feature-length film to be made – the 1974 version featured songs and dancing to pad the action out – but as visually beautiful as The Little Prince is, one can’t help but look up at the stars and think that one is no longer laughing.