When Mark Osborne left his home in New York to go to animation school at the California Institute of the Arts, he was nervous about leaving the life he knew ― and the girlfriend he loved ― behind.
To calm his nerves, his girlfriend gave him a book ― one that speaks to the power of childlike wonder and imagination, one that champions the endurance of love. She quoted it in letters she wrote, reminding him, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Now, they’re married and have two kids, to whom they’ve read the book at bedtime.
The book was The Little Prince, a classic children’s story by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. For those who haven’t basked in its pages, containing scintillating yet constant reminders that growing up doesn’t have to mean losing your youthful optimism, a brief summary: It’s the story of an aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges in the Netflix adaption) who feels lonely in the concrete, so-often-literal world of adults until he meets a young prince in the desert. The book is the aviator’s retelling of his story.
The prince comes from a faraway land on Asteroid B-612, but the narrator of the book is less concerned with numbers and more concerned with poetic details. What matters to him about the prince are not the coordinates of his space-home, but what he desires, what he laughs about and what he loves.
Just as Saint-Exupery values personal details over concrete facts in his classic story, Osborne wanted his animated retelling of The Little Prince to reflect the quiet lyricism of the original, rather than, as he put it, “stretching the book out and risk fracturing the book by trying to make it big enough to fill the movie screen.”
So, when Osborne, whose previous directorial endeavors include “Kung-Fu Panda,” was approached to direct the adaptation, he initially said no. “It’s kind of hard to pull a book off the shelf and say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna make this into a movie,’” he told The Huffington Post. “That takes a lot of gumption.”
Osborne added that he feared computer-generated graphics might gloss over the book’s original message: that images, details and facts can be hazy and interpretable, and that it’s the way we interpret them that makes us who we are.
“CG’s a little unforgiving because everything is there. There’s nothing very impressionistic about CG,” Osborne said. “I really felt that it wasn’t the right medium to celebrate the soul of the book and the poetry of the book.”
So, he approached the film’s producers with a different idea. The movie would be told in two different animation styles: stop-motion to represent the story of The Little Prince itself and CG for the “real world” around it, starring a brave heroine who discovers the book. The little girl (Mackenzie Foy) allows it to pull her into a world of imagination that contrasts with her usual daily regiment.
“I could tell a larger story around the book, to protect the book, and let the book be the beating heart of the movie,” Osborne said. To his surprise, in spite of a tricky and costly execution, the project was OK’d.
The resulting film opens with a scene of a young girl interviewing for a place at Werth Academy, a school with a track record for preparing its students for life after education. “What will you be when you grow up?” a sign for Werth Academy advertises. It answers itself: “Essential.”
“Essential” is a word that rings throughout the Netflix adaption. It’s what the little girl’s mother (Rachel McAdams) says when she plans her life minute by minute, and it’s what a greedy businessman says when he declares that he bought all the stars in the galaxy in a scene where the worlds of the book and the movie collide. “The stars have finally been made essential,” he cackles, characterizing the scourge of hyper-efficiency.
The satire that emerges is cold and bleak, with grids of identical streets filled with rows of identical homes, housing uniformed kids and their exhausted parents. But when the story’s heroine catches a glimpse of her neighbor ― an aviator-hat-wearing man who lives in the only mismatched house on the block ― she gets swept up into his playful world of tinkering, riffing and imagining. He folds a page of a story-in-progress into the shape of a paper airplane and throws it into her home, beginning a life-changing introduction to The Little Prince that leads her to neglect her studies but nurture her penchant for personal expression.
Discussing his creative choice to animate half of the movie in papery, romantic stop-motion, and the rest in the bubbly Pixar-like sheen of CG, Osborne said, “For me it was a great way to highlight the contrast between being a grown-up and being a child ― using CG to represent reality, and stop-motion to represent the imagination was an exciting way for me to help tell the story.”
Osborne felt that the themes of The Little Prince, which he artfully embeds within his own story, will resonate modern audiences.
“In my mind, the book keeps getting more and more significant, because I think the world keeps getting more and more grown up,” he said, adding that the book is both timely and timeless in its quiet, abstract expressions of love, creativity and friendship.
“One of the magical things about the book is it’s different to everyone who reads it, and whenever you read it you find something different in it,” Osborne said. “I think wherever you are in your life is what the book helps you deal with.”
“The Little Prince” hits Netflix on Aug. 5. Watch the trailer below.
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