No French work of fiction has sold more copies than The Little Prince; yet, in the seven decades since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's philosophical storybook was published, there has been only one film version – an unsuccessful musical from 1974. All other comers have been daunted, it seems, by the book's hallowed reputation and unusual narrative structure.
"It isn't movie-shaped at all," says Mark Osborne, whose animated take on the book reaches screens in most of Canada on Friday (a French-dubbed version opened in Quebec last month). "And I think that if I had tried to do a literal adaptation, I would have been ripped to shreds."
Osborne, whose previous films include Kung Fu Panda and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, decided that what was needed was another layer of storytelling. The main character in his film is an American girl, who escapes domination by her controlling mother by hanging out with the eccentric old aviator next door. He tells her about a mysterious boy from an asteroid whom he met while stranded in the desert, and about the galaxy of neurotic adult types the boy had met on his travels.
The film's two layers – or three, if you count the extension of the pilot's storyline into old age – are distinguished visually by two kinds of animation: stop-motion for the pilot's presentation of Saint-Exupéry's tale, computer-generated (CG) for everything else.
"To me, the stop-motion sections preserve the soul of the book," Osborne says. The figures recall the style of Saint-Exupéry's illustrations, he says, and the mask-like features of pilot and prince allow for more projection of what they may be feeling.
"I felt I could use CG to underscore aspects of the book, to surround and protect it, and to create something that is more movie-shaped," the director says. The girl and the aviator discuss the meaning of the tale, which in the film is an unpublished manuscript. A lengthy later segment deals with how the girl reacts when she discovers that the Little Prince appears to die in the story's final pages, and that the aviator himself may be near his end.
"She can't deal with the loss of the aviator and can't understand the book," Osborne says. "She does something that is both very grown-up and very literal, which is to look for evidence. But she also does something very powerfully childlike, which is that she goes deeply into her own imagination."
Osborne defends his authorial licence by saying that Saint-Exupéry wanted us to extend his narrative in our own minds. "The aviator says very clearly in the book that the most important thing you can do is to look up at the stars and ask if the sheep eats the rose," the director says, referring to the Little Prince's fear that his beloved rose might be destroyed. "Saint-Exupéry is basically asking us to imagine that the story continues. That was my cue."
It's all very meta in its way: not a straight adaptation of a book, but a narrative based on a fictitious person's reading of that book. But the conventions of the material Osborne invents to "surround and protect" St-Exupéry's tale, and the style of the CG, are very much those of a Hollywood-style animated feature. In a more practical sense, The Little Prince had nothing directly to do with Hollywood. It was financed entirely outside the United States by three French producers, and all the animation was done in Montreal.
"Every frame of this movie was made in Montreal," says Osborne, who spent 18 months in the city. "The tax incentive was enormous, and it meant that I could do the CG and the stop-motion in the same place. Every other scenario we considered would have obliged us to do these in two different countries."
The project was already brewing when Osborne was signed on, but his connection with the book was long and profound, he says. He still has the copy given to him by his future wife when the two were separated by a continent during their student days.
"I have the letter she sent me, in which she says we'll always be together even when we're apart, and that it is only with the heart that one sees truly." That latter phrase is a central theme in The Little Prince.
The film extended the personal connection by developing into a kind of Osborne family project. "The little girl is inspired by our daughter, and our son is the voice of the Little Prince," Osborne said. His wife, who is not an actress, voiced the part of the helicopter mom in a draft version, though the director quickly adds that the character was not based on her. "It's more a reflection of me and how I parent. I'm a little more worried about grades than I should be, and it's not necessarily the best thing for my kids."
The stop-motion parts of the film also reflect Osborne's attachment to this old-school form. As a student at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), he specialized in experimental animation, and made short films that incorporated stop-motion.
"I fell in love with it, because I could physically build stuff and create it," he says.
"It was very immediate." Looking at CG frames being made in isolation on a screen makes him a bit crazy, he says, "because you very rarely see it all come together. After a day in the Mikros Image studio in Montreal, I would be ready to jump off the building. Then, I would go over to the stop-motion studio, and smell the hot glue and the paint and the sawdust, and I would see these beautiful things under my eyes. It saved my life every day, to see this process, and to get back in touch with my roots."
Making the whole film in stop-motion was never a real option, however, because that form of animation has yet to make the kind of splash CG has, the director says. Nobody would finance a stop-motion feature to the extent that The Little Prince' s backers did with CG in the mix.
"Stop-motion hasn't quite broken the storytelling barriers that Pixar brilliantly did with CG in Toy Story, so it's just not as profitable," Osborne says.
"When Pixar makes a movie for $200-million and they make a billion, that math speaks to the bean counters. If you make a movie for $50-million that makes $200-million, that's a pretty good profit margin, but it's not as crazy as the Pixar movie."
Stop-motion isn't necessarily more expensive, he says, and has become easier with software such as Dragonframe, whose developer Jamie Caliri worked on The Little Prince. "I think there's a revolution coming in stop-motion," he says.
As for his film, it has already done very good business in France, as well as in Mexico and Brazil. French critical opinion was generally favourable, though Le Monde's reviewer said "it's not clear that the superimposition of three stories does justice to the story of Saint-Exupéry." There are always risks involved when you make free with a national monument.