Movies

Beyond The Multiplex: ‘The Little Prince’ Makes A Belated Debut, ‘Neither Heaven Nor Earth’ Offers A Strange War Story

The Little Prince, an animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic 1943 children’s story, has had a strange journey from page to screen, ultimately landing on a different sort of screen than originally intended in the United States. Directed by Kung Fu Panda co-director Mark Osborne, the film premiered at Cannes in 2015 and played much of the rest of the world to acclaim and financial success that year, earning a César, the French Oscar, for Best Animated Feature. Paramount announced it would release the film in the States in March this year, a release preceded by posters, trailers, and even a wave of toys. Then, a week before it was supposed to arrive in theaters, the studio got cold feet. And, just like that, The Little Prince disappeared.

Netflix stepped in, and The Little Prince makes its belated premiere on the service today, a move that might end up securing it a bigger audience than it might have enjoyed in theaters. It’s a happy ending for a charming film, but also one that suggests Osborne and screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti might have been better off not working so hard to make a movie that could fit so snugly beside every other computer-animated film released in theaters these days given that it was destined to bypass those theaters. The Little Prince doesn’t so much adapt its source material as nest it within a pleasant but less distinctive modern animated movie. It’s an odd, mostly successful hybrid that still makes it hard not to wish for a more daring film that might have been.

The film builds a framing device around Saint-Exupéry’s story that’s far more grounded in the real world than the fantastic source material. Mackenzie Foy provides the voice of The Little Girl, an overscheduled schoolgirl who, in the opening scene, blows the interview for an exclusive academy despite the best preparations of her caring, hovering single mother (Rachel McAdams). Determined to give her daughter the best future possible, the girl’s mother then moves her to a new neighborhood in the academy’s district and next door to an eccentric, elderly aviator voiced by Jeff Bridges.

Fans of the original book will naturally recognize the aviator as a much older version of a character from the book, the audience for The Little Prince’s fantastic tales of planet-hopping and magical roses. After befriending her new neighbor, the girl learns of The Little Prince through her neighbor’s handwritten journal, which the otherwise computer animated film depicts in a series of stop-motion sequences.

In these moments the film starts to look breathtaking, even groundbreaking. Creations of wood, cloth, and paper, The Little Prince and his companions wander through beautiful landscapes and star-filled skies and the film recounts his bittersweet tales with the hushed intensity of a bedtime story. It’s mesmerizing, so much so that when it jerks back to the girl and her far more mundane concerns, it’s hard to get a sense of whiplash, even if the film draws strong, clear lines between Saint-Exupéry’s themes and The Little Girl’s story.

A final act attempts, mostly successfully, to bring the two strands together, dropping The Little Girl into a dystopian world filled with characters from The Little Prince’s adventures as she embarks on a rescue mission for the now-grown “Mr. Prince” (Paul Rudd), who’s turned into just the sort of mindless, rule-abiding adult that the story cautions its readers against becoming. It provides a satisfying, conventional conclusion to a fine film Netflix has wisely kept from falling into obscurity, but it also tries a little too hard to match the frenzy and emotional pull of Pixar and its imitators. The film is lovely when it breaks with conventions, so why conclude by doing what everybody else does?

For 12 years in the 1970s and early 1980s — and here and there ever since — DC Comics published Weird War Tales, a comic that gave readers pretty much what its title promised by mixing stories of men at arms with tales of ghosts and other creatures from the beyond. The best issues used the supernatural as a way to talk about the all-too-real horrors of warfare, using the uncanny as a metaphor for what it means for nations to clash, and what it does to the men on the ground doing the clashing.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth, a new film from French director Clément Cogitore, often feels like a modern day update of Weird War Tales. It’s set in Afghanistan where a squad of men led by Capitaine Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) keep a lonely watch on a valley outside a small, hillside desert village. They watch for the encroachment of Taliban fighters and for signs of collaboration and dissent among the villagers, whom they know by name and with whom they’ve developed a tense if usually cordial relationship.

Their job can be tense, but mostly Neither Heaven Nor Earth makes it look dull. The men sit around, lift weights, write letters back home and wait for something to happen. Sometimes they trade stories during the night via walkie talkie. Mostly they just go about their job. Then, one night, their dog disappears. Then, one by one, the men start to disappear. Why? Nobody knows. And nobody seems able to find out, either by questioning the villagers or talking to the militants hiding nearby. As the search intensifies, the strangers start to crack. And when mundane explanations lead nowhere, the men start to consider the impossible.

As in a good horror film — and Neither Heaven Nor Earth often resembles a good horror film, albeit one more interested in mounting unease than jolts — Cogitore uses the inexplicable to comment on other aspects of his characters’ lives. The disappearances ratchet up the tension the men already face, making them question the validity of their mission in the first place. They don’t so much face a new threat as an old fear that’s taken on a new form.

They’re also doomed not to find it. Cogitore has no interest in providing answers to the mysteries his film raises, only exploring them alongside his characters as they grow wearier from fighting an enemy they can’t see or understand. The unseen thing in the dark we all fear becomes a stand-in for what it’s like to be apart from the rest of the world in a confusing, perilous situation where the rules seem to keep changing and threats can emerge from anywhere. It’s a war story whose weirdness helps bring the war home.

The Little Prince premieres today on Netflix. Neither Heaven Nor Earth opens in New York and L.A. today before expanding.

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