When I read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in grade seven, it had no impact on me at the time. The book isn’t really for children. It’s an adult story told with the boisterous spirit of a child, meant for those who can’t remember how to perceive the world with imagination. I had to lose my unabashed inkling to trust and believe before I could understand The Little Prince.
Published in 1943, during the Second World War, The Little Prince considers many themes pertinent to the author’s personal life and the time period; Nazism, mortality, and materialism. The novel is about a prince that leaves his lonely asteroid to travel the universe. On his journey, he encounters foolish men that concern themselves with inessential, material things: a king without a kingdom, a businessman who hoards his wealth, and a drunk who drinks to forget he is a drunk, among others.
Because the original story is so episodic and uniquely structured, director Mark Osborne sidesteps the challenge of segmenting the story in his animated adaptation by integrating the novel into the plot of the film as a story within a story, which is an ingenious practical and thematic choice. This is in no way a remake, more a consideration of the book’s ongoing relevance and power. By having a girl directly interact with the novel, she actively decodes Exupéry’s metaphors, demonstrating what the story means to her and us today.
The film is set in contemporary times, which is depicted in boring, rigid shapes — the cars are boxes, the houses are designed in rectangles and the bird’s eye view of the suburban neighborhood is a dull square. The young girl’s mother has a square board that outlines every minute of her life for maximum efficiency, doing away with any awe or wonder. The map for our protagonist’s life is as logical and structured as the design of the square neighborhood in which she lives. The girl is forced to study dense arithmetic. Stories and art aren’t a part of the curriculum. They are expendable.
By not directly adapting the novel, Exupéry himself becomes a character within the film. The man next door, who shares pages of the book with the little girl, is from another world. His kooky inventions, lopsided house, and illogically proportioned figure are alien and distant from all the sharp edges and straight logic. The author of one of the most creative classics of all time is seen as a lunatic and out of touch with supposedly better, contemporary ways of thinking.
The Little Prince is a film about the intangible power of storytelling, about how its value can’t be explained, only felt. Osborne uses three different kinds of animation to consider the impact of the prince’s story on the little girl and the audience, too. The 3D animation captures the realistic spaces with proper depth and shape. Stop-motion is used in the story within the story, and the craft-like aesthetic puts us inside the girl’s imagination. Flat, two-dimensional animation depicts the illustrations from the novel, often in tandem with narration to engage the viewer in a kind of Rorschach test, questioning our rigid perception.
By cleverly adapting the novel as a story within a story, The Little Prince interprets its dense source material, shows the power of stories as it changes the mindset of a little girl, and considers the way the author may have been viewed if he lived in our heavily structured and scientifically-minded society. Exupéry’s message is resoundingly subversive: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
If you have faith to follow this film’s ludicrously structured narrative, you will perceive things in an old way — like a child. Eyes provide facts, while the heart is the reason for living in the first place. It’s clear which one is the more essential.