Imagine you’re going to go see a movie based on a beloved childhood book; let’s just say it’s Pinocchio. Only instead of beginning with a marionette carved out of wood, it begins with a totally unrelated child trying to get good grades, and who cheats in class. This child then moves next door to a crazy man who happens to actually be original author Carlo Collodi, and he reads Pinocchio to the kid, pausing periodically to say, “Get it, Junior? LYING is BAD!” Oh, and the kid’s mom interrupts the story every so often to bring the kid back home to do homework. And the entire climax of the movie is Pinocchio as a grown-up, forgetting he ever was a puppet.
You would probably, and quite rightly, recoil from such a take. Yet that’s pretty much what a new animated movie has done to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children’s classic, The Little Prince. What makes this extra frustrating is that buried within this CG take is a respectable and beautiful stop-motion/hand-drawn recreation of the book, chopped to pieces and forced into the service of a more modern story. The classic scenes redone gave me chills; the new stuff made me facepalm.
The allegorical tale of an aviator who meets his personified inner child in the Sahara desert has been made into a movie before, by Stanley Donen in 1974. And while hampered by the limits of budgets and special effects of the time–forcing you to suspend disbelief and just accept that Gene Wilder is a fox and Bob Fosse a snake–the musical was an adaptation you could fairly call a love letter to the original. What director Mark Osbourne (Kung Fu Panda) has done doesn’t feel like love; it’s more like a one-sided relationship where one partner keeps trying to get the other to change.
In and of itself, the satirical framing story, of an unnamed little girl (Mackenzie Foy) whose mother so desires her to get into a prestigious school that she schedules every minute of their lives, isn’t the worst thing ever. It just ain’t The Little Prince. And when they move into a homogenized neighborhood, next door to the one Edward Scissorhands house on the whole block, and it turns out to be inhabited by a crazy old man (Jeff Bridges) who is the Aviator of the book, years later…well, that’s the first slap in the face. He’s supposed to be a man who came to understand himself and humanity better, not a reckless nutjob who crashes his car and sends a propeller flying through his neighbors’ wall in potentially lethal fashion. Nonetheless, of course he will teach the girl and her mother the importance of a little chaos and imagination by movie’s end. He does so by reading his story–The Little Prince–aloud, repeating its signature quote “One sees clearly only with the heart” multiple times to ensure the audience doesn’t miss an explicit statement of theme. Yet he leaves out parts of the book, which is short enough already, including visits to several of the tale’s distinctive tiny asteroid worlds, and some of the Prince’s exploits on Earth.
It’s possible the notion of adults being out of touch with their childhood personalities is a dated notion to some; you are, after all, reading this review on a website created by and for grown men (like me) and women who proudly express an interest in comic books, toys, and science-fiction shows. But Osbourne’s answer is to contrast that with a child who is overly in touch with her own inner adult, and to do this he adds on a ruinous third act, in which the classic book characters all wind up on a world that looks like the Matrix, where the prince himself has lost touch with his youth. Let’s call this a modern-day proverb: you don’t force Peter Pan to grow up unless you’re on the level of Steven Spielberg, and even then, many will call it a misfire. And unless you’re Charlie Kaufman, deconstructing an adaptation may not be wise either; there’s something wrong if your protagonist isn’t even in the original book.
The best I can hope for with the 2016 version is that it piques an interest in the source material in younger viewers. If it does, it will at least have done the book one worthwhile service.
One burrito for The Little Prince, and it’s only for the traditionally animated stuff. Thankfully this is distributed by Netflix, so you’ll be able to check out just the good parts if you choose.
Luke Y. Thompson is the weekend editor for Nerdist, and is on great terms with his inner childishness. If you’ve seen his Twitter, you know this.