Inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella Le Petit Prince, the recently released animated film The Little Prince is utterly essential. It is the essential film to watch in 2016 – not merely among animated films or children’s movie, but across all cinema. Likewise, its message and mores – particularly regarding Materialism, Maturation, and their intersection in Death – though certainly not subtle, are every bit as essential today as when Saint-Exupéry wrote his work during the Second World War. And The Little Prince is thematically essential – that is to say, the central theme of the film is the question of what is truly essential, with the chief conflict centering on two competing definitions of such.
The first approach is epitomized from the opening scenes of the film. Protagonist Riley Osborne is interviewing for acceptance into the prestigious Werth Academy (possibly an homage to Saint-Exupéry’s close friend Leon Werth, to whom Le Petit Prince was dedicated, and certainly chosen for its homophonic proximity to “worth,” being an institution which engenders in its students the attributes which will give them worth to a materialist society). In the interview, Riley incorrectly answers the only question asked of her: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The “correct” answer, according to posters plastering the academy’s walls, is “Essential.”
The film’s critique of the materialist answer as to what is essential draws upon the full gamut of techniques available to cinema as a medium. The entirety of the first act, in which Riley’s mother – an Apache among helicopter parents – makes heavy use of grey tones, not dissimilar from Playdead’s recent Inside. Moreover, every scene is shot at a right angle to every object depicted therein, almost all of which – including bushes, houses, streets, and cars – are comprised entirely of right angles themselves. It is a dreary uniformity on the level of Camazotz from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Or perhaps the better modern-day Märchen to which to compare The Little Prince is the 1938 version of The Wizard of Oz, in which a young girl escapes her provincial existence, awash in greyscale, through a portal into a world of technicolor imagination. And The Little Prince is, at its heart, a portal story. But instead of an antique wardrobe or the hole of a white rabbit, Riley passes through a hole in her fence, traversing no farther than her next door neighbor’s overrun back yard. And herein lies the magic of The Little Prince that elevates it over other examples from the genre: there’s never a clear delineation between the two realities of the mundane and the fantastic. For it’s not the hole in the fence which transports Riley so much as her reading the Aviator’s story about the Little Prince. It is the very real magic of art and imagination – of the same sort worked by Saint-Exupéry upon his readers – that likewise changes the way in which Riley perceives the world around her. And with this new way of viewing the world comes a new worldview, one which rejects the materialist definition of value for quite a contradictory claim:
One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.
Such is the refrain of the Fox to the Prince, and later of the aged Aviator to Riley. In it are subsumed all of the apparent allegory and aesops found throughout. This is evident in the Prince’s taming of the Fox and the Rose – no different than any other fox or any other rose – except in their history with and relationship to the Prince. That history and that relationship are invisible attributes, and yet, so far as the Prince is concerned, their most important qualities. So too the value of art and beauty. The Professor expressly declines to call his reconditioning institution a work of art, not because he doesn’t value the indoctrination machine, but because he does not value art, the latter lacking in utility. But the beauty of beauty is that it’s superfluous. Or rather, seemingly superfluous, because it is an end in itself. Unlike the Businessman’s preoccupation with owning and acquiring more stars, or Riley’s mother’s obsession with her life plan, art and beauty are not means but rather ends in themselves. Because materialism cannot measure and metric ultimate ends, it discounts them entirely; their value is visible only to the heart.
This rejection of materialism in favor of idealism is reflected in the structure of the narrative itself. The audience is first allowed to assume that the Aviator’s stories of the Little Prince are a fiction within the fiction, and to be taken as such. The use of stop-motion animation as opposed to computer generated imagery certainly suggests a separate metafictional layer. And if feels as if the Aviator is relating the events of his own life to Riley as allegory through the character of the Prince – just as Saint-Exupéry based much of the work on autobiographical details. Yet when Riley regards the Prince as real, reachable by biplane, the Aviator never contradicts her. Furthermore, Riley’s own adventure is depicted not in the stop-motion style of the flashbacks, but using the same computer imagery of the primary reality. And while the final scenes don’t discount the possibility that the climax was not a concussion-induced dream due to Riley falling from the drainpipe, neither do they take pains to confirm such (as with the ending to the Wizard of Oz film); given the film’s rejection of materialism, the material reality (or unreality) of her meeting the Prince is exactly beside the point, and the ambiguity of such is the surest sign of true genius at work throughout the script.
Less ambiguous is the filmmakers’ rejection of the Christological reading of the Prince character. While never confirmed by Saint-Exupéry himself, consideration of that interpretation is unavoidable in both the book and the first half of the film. Not only is he a prince whose home is in the heavens, but after descending to the earth he willingly allows the sinister serpent to strike his heel, knowing, even intending, that it would prove fatal, and yet also that he’d return to the heavens, his body nowhere to be found on the face of the earth. Riley’s agnostic doubts to this revelation and the Aviator’s retort of “I believe,” at first seemed to reinforce a messianic motif, but the film’s usage of Mr. Prince in the final act is so incompatible that it must be read as a rejection of the Christ connection, no more than coincidence. Whatever Saint-Exupéry intended, so far as the film’s concerned, the Prince is no more Jesus than was E.T. Perhaps such was for the best. My chief criticism of Man of Steel was it trying to thread too many disparate themes (one of which was also Christological), and The Little Prince is certainly a stronger film for its singular focus on condemning the trite materialism endemic to adulthood and elevating in its stead the invisible but essential worth of beauty, art, imagination, friendship, and love.
I was highly anticipating The Little Prince’s theatrical release back in March, and now having finally watched the film I am all the more flummoxed as to whatever the reason could possibly have been for its eleventh hour cancellation and its unceremonious relegation to the ghetto of straight-to-streaming. Perhaps the predictable embarrassment of too many grown men crying at the cineplex? Whatever ever the reason, rest assured it was nothing to do with the film’s quality. Of all animated works, only Toy Story 3 and The Lego Movie stand in its company, and – though I’m loathe to lather on superlatives – The Little Prince is the best of these. It is a true ars cinematica, a movie about the value of movies, or in this case at the very least of fictional media in general. In in both its explicit theme and unmatched quality it successfully argues that such stories, such imagination, to be not merely valuable and worthwhile, but absolutely essential.