Review: Patience pays off for refreshing animated tale ‘The Little Prince’

CANNES – In 2015, it's much easier to tell which company produced an animated movie as opposed to who directed it.  That”s a tad disheartening considering how much energy the studios behind these films exert trying to nudge their directors into the spotlight.

For instance, you can immediately tell a Pixar film by its character design and a story that almost always has a life message it wants to tell (which you can predictably see a mile away, for better or worse). Walt Disney Animation has soared in recent years by blissfully keeping the movie musical alive or finding the heartstrings in action-packed adventures. DreamWorks Animation films skew toward broad, interactive 3D animation that overshadows their peers and a sense of humor that can often appeal more to adults than kids (at times). LAIKA”s gorgeous stop-motion work has the quirky, dark corner completely covered.

The artists at Universal”s Illumination Entertainment have made a name for themselves with a slightly Euro-skewed character design (makes sense as they are based in France) and physical comedy that translates in any language. Notably, the latter has often been the biggest trademark of 20th Century Fox”s partner Blue Sky (which makes sense as Illumination's founder started off there), although their films always tend to feature the least inspired scripts of the bunch. As for Sony Animation? Well, they”ve been all over the quality scale.

That”s what makes the individuality of Mark Osborne”s independently produced “The Little Prince” so impressive.

Osborne, best known for helming “Kung Fu Panda” at DreamWorks, has collaborated with screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti to bring Antoine de Saint-Exupéry”s classic novel to the big screen, and it was no easy task. The author's original work is too short and slightly abstract for a straight adaptation, so Osborne and his colleagues have fashioned a different, modern-day story around it.  

Our heroine is simply known as The Little Girl (Mackenie Foy), a, um, young girl who is doing everything possible to follow the life plan her mother (Rachel McAdams) has literally mapped out for her. It”s magnificently displayed on a wall filled with magnetic pegs. When they move to a new neighborhood to further that plan, The Little Girl becomes friends with an old eccentric known as The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) across the street. The Aviator introduces her to the story of The Little Prince (the one from the book) as an adventure he experienced earlier in his life. It appears that The Prince has been left on a planet in the sky and The Aviator has spent years trying to construct a plane to rescue him.

Unlike the rest of the film that has been rendered in what is now “traditional” 3D animation, the Prince”s story has been animated with stop-motion figures, mostly made of paper. It”s a striking and beautiful choice that immediately feels as though it”s bringing Saint-Exupéry”s original artwork to life. It would have been nice to have more of it, but if you”re going to find a way to integrate the spirit of the book into a contemporary film, this is a more than satisfactory solution.

Eventually, The Little Girl discovers that the Prince”s universe of stars has been co-opted by both the inherently bad Business Man (Albert Brooks) and The Conceited Man (Ricky Gervais). And, trust, our heroine is going to do everything she can to free The Little Prince from their star-less universe.  

As the film progresses, Osborne walks a fine line on whether The Little Girl”s adventure to save the Prince is real or not. In the end, it doesn”t matter in the context of her story arc, but there is something refreshing about the fact that the movie doesn”t make it so obvious. Frankly, it”s hard to imagine the picture making it through a traditional studio testing process without the audience being told one way or another.

While there are many genre-specific tropes used to make the story appeal to younger viewers, there is also something about the patience Osborne has for a scene to play out that immediately recalls Brad Bird”s “The Iron Giant” and, to a lesser extent, Gore Verbinski”s “Rango.” There is a faith that the story and characters will keep the audience engaged, even if there isn”t a bright and shiny thing to distract them in a every single scene. Granted, Osborne and his animators have fashioned a top-notch-rendered “real” world for the characters to interact with, and the figure design is just enough of a Franco- and American-skewing mix to make you question what studio actually produced it. But in a business where so much feature animation seemingly has to come from a pre-established entity to gain any notoriety in the public eye, the result is more refreshing than you might expect.

While some of the voice performers such as James Franco (The Fox), Marion Cotillard (The Rose) and Benicio Del Toro (The Serpent) barely have anything to say, Foy, McAdams, Gervais and Brooks are top notch. Unfortunately, Bridges might have been a bit too on-the-nose for The Aviator and his performance here feels just a tad too kooky. An unrecognizable Paul Rudd throws out some welcome Stanley Tucci attitude as a not-so-impressed school administrator, though.

The film also features a memorable score by Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey that includes beautiful vocals by Camille Dalmais.

“The Little Prince” will open in France on July 29. Paramount Pictures has not set a U.S. release date at this time.