Many children’s films, with their frenetic pace, smug re-appropriations of pop culture, and insidious self-actualizing sentiments, appear to exist as training manuals, instructing their audiences on the expectations awaiting them as future self-hating consumers. Whatever its faults, The Little Prince offers a refreshing reprieve from this brainwashing with its anecdotal, leisurely dramatization of a little girl as she discovers that the ambitious corporatized life awaiting her as an adult is a rigged and depressing game designed to stifle individuality for the sake of profiting a select few.
More strikingly yet, the film doesn’t reveal the Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) to be a superhero who overthrows her society, allowing audiences to escape uncomfortable truths via daydream. No, director Mark Osborne follows his protagonist as she discovers a sense of herself, in order to weather the inevitable tides of conformity awaiting her with something resembling sanity and interior security intact. Which is a bracingly practical and human message for children-targeted art to proffer.
But therein also lies the rub: The Little Prince is beholden to its message, often at the expense of character portraiture. The narrative is constructed as a series of stories within stories, and every one of them has the same moral: Follow your dream, despite the risks of loneliness that are involved. Peripheral to this message is a less prickly but reliably poignant assertion: We all die, so make the most of this time that’s granted. Moving into a new neighborhood with her Mother (Rachel McAdams), so as to qualify for acceptance into a posh school that will condition her into a perfect company automaton, the Little Girl encounters the Aviator (Jeff Bridges), her new neighbor, and the kind of gruff, eccentric free-spirit who’s destined to teach children lessons that are ideal for their coming of age.
The Little Girl’s interest in the Aviator is no mystery, as he widens her accepted scope of what life can be, offering a break from Mother’s stifling insistence on scheduling each day down to the millisecond on a huge, forbidding calendar. (Refreshingly, Mother’s fanaticism isn’t villainized, but recognized as the terror that radiates from the profoundly disappointed.) The Aviator looks a little like Merlin, with his long, angular face and beard, and his home even resembles a cross between a ramshackle cottage and a castle, with a porch sticking out its side that suggests a tower. The Aviator bedazzles the Little Girl with tales of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne), a blond boy who wanders from asteroids to deserts, seeking to flee and then rediscover his Rose (Marion Cotillard), a flower of encompassing, existence-enriching beauty.
As preachy and repetitive as The Little Prince can be, it offers enough moments of poetry to keep it flirting with greatness, or at least goodness. A formal gimmick, a sort of animated-film version of the contrast between black-and-white and color cinematography that was used by The Wizard of Oz, subtly suggests that the modern house style of computer-generated illustration, favored by Pixar, Dreamworks, among others, is impersonally conformist. The present tense of the film’s narrative is drawn in this fashion, with characters who sport big, generic bobbly heads and stick-figure bodies, but the varying stories nesting within the “real” tense are often visualized via gorgeous stop-motion that suggests the individuality of expression for which the “real” characters yearn. In an ambiguous fusion of these aesthetics, the Little Prince, mostly rendered in stop-motion, is eventually drawn into the computer-generated world, resonantly embodying how the Little Girl grows to blend her dreams with her reality. The Little Prince reveals itself, then, to be concerned with the blossoming of qualified idealism.