Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Little Prince: He’s in There Somewhere

The Little Prince is a prestigious publication with a popular following. It was voted best book of the Twentieth Century in France and reportedly continues to rack up two million copies in backlist sales each year. Richard Burton won a Grammy for his LP recording of the novella and Lerner & Lowe were nominated for Oscars for the odd 1974 live action musical starring Bob Fosse. Netflix was clearly hoping for some serious awards love for the new animated adaptation Paramount rather precipitously dropped. Unfortunately, Mark Osbourne loses confidence in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, preferring to focus on a contemporary framing narrative. After the false start in March, Osbourne’s The Little Prince (trailer here) is finally playing at the IFC Center in New York and streaming on Netflix.

Given the poor state of government schools in their town, a little girl’s mother will do anything to get her into the tony Werth Academy. Although presumably private, it is still bound by bureaucratic regulations to accept students within certain geographical boundaries. Her mother happens to find a small house priced to sell, thanks to the eccentric next door neighbor: a retired aviator.

Against her mother’s wishes, the girl starts spending time with the grizzled old coot, who slowly relates the tale of a mysterious little boy he met after crash landing in the Sahara Desert. Unlike the bland CG animation telling the wrap-around (but frankly primary) narrative, the actual story of the Little Prince is told through evocative stop-motion animation that perfectly captures the mystical archetypal nature of the tale. We see the Prince fight the baobab trees threatening his home planetoid, Asteroid B-612 and watch him fall in love with his Rose. Some of the characters are sacrificed to make room for the little girl’s heavy-handed encounters, but the Prince’s meeting with the Fox is still rather poignant.

Unfortunately, Osbourne’s film takes a didactic turn when the Little Girl takes off in search of the Prince. However, instead of finding the eternally noble little boy, she discovers he is now the broken and humiliated Mr. Prince, working as a janitor in a dystopian city of robber baron capitalism and dark satanic mills, clearly modeled after Modern Times and Metropolis.  That’s right, Osbourne turns The Little Prince into Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but naturally he opts for a treacly sentimental ending.

At the time, Paramount’s decision to dump such an enduringly popular property like The Little Prince seemed utterly perverse, but it turns out they knew what they were doing. Osbourne’s adaptation is a massive disappointment, at least with respects to his underwhelming, ideologically charged, excessively long present day wrap-arounds and constant interruptions. The forty-five minutes or so of genuine Saint- Exupéry are quite good. Maybe Netflix will eventually whittle it down to novella length. In the meantime, the bloated self-sabotaging Little Prince is not recommended (unless you care to stream it and fast forward to the good parts).