In an industry that deems Angry Birds and troll dolls worthy subjects for feature-length animation, it seems strange that a children’s book as beloved as The Little Prince has struggled so much to reach the screen. But as director Mark Osborne himself admits, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s delicate, melancholy tale is “not movie-shaped at all.” And so he’s remolded it, fitting the very French Prince inside a more straightforward American narrative that begins when a nameless Little Girl moves next door to the book’s original Aviator (Jeff Bridges), now an old man, and befriends him. When we meet her, the Girl (Interstellar’s Mackenzie Foy) desperately needs some joie de vivre: Her summer “vacation” is a lonely boot camp supervised by a type-A single mother (Rachel McAdams) and ruled by a daily regimen of studying and self-improvement. The kindly, eccentric Aviator offers an escape from all that; with his rickety house full of books and music and exotic knickknacks, he shows her the joy in messiness and the limitless possibilities of her imagination—in other words, how to be a kid. And with each visit, she grows more fascinated by his stories and drawings of a small yellow-haired boy’s adventures on an asteroid far, far away.
One of the most inspired choices Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) makes is to build such a striking visual contrast between his two scenarios. The Girl’s has the smooth, hyperreal look of modern computer animation, but the Prince’s is pure magic: beautifully textured stop-motion frames that hold every bend of shadow and light in their crinkled, papery folds. The seams of the film’s parallel plots don’t always come together quite as neatly; translating de Saint-Exupéry’s metaphysical oddity into an at least semi-conventional kids’ movie is a challenge no one may ever quite be able to meet. But at its inventive best—like the creation of a little cloth fox who never speaks but steals almost every scene he’s in—it does capture the odd, tender wonder of his world. B+