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Netflix’s The Little Prince is heavy on visual delights, thin on substance

Once upon a time, noted New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote a bitter essay lamenting the demise of adulthood. "[I]n doing away with patriarchal authority," he wrote, "we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups."

Scott went on to lament the rise of narratives "that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world," claiming that such formerly marginalized hallmarks of geek culture like comic book adaptations and animated feature films now form the "artistic heart" of pop culture. These stories, Scott wrote, subsequently allow us to "conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young."

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But while Scott was reticent to criticize this new world of gleeful adult immaturity, many others have been less so. Innumerable essays lamenting the "entitlement" and "narcissism" of the modern millennial have made it abundantly clear that we should be wary of, if not downright disgusted by, these young whippersnappers who seem to so easily prioritize hanging on to the pleasures and delights of childhood over their grown-up responsibilities.

It’s interesting, then, to ponder what Scott and other millennial naysayers might think of Netflix’s new release of the animated feature film The Little Prince. The movie is an adaptation of the legendary French children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A literary classic full of quotable quotes and teeming with whimsical illustrations, The Little Prince is a choice example of the sort of beloved cultural product that movingly recalls to us our childhoods.

The film has not only embraced the distinctive aesthetics of the book, with its emphasis on childlike fantasy and cosmic wonder — it has also framed itself around a minor but essential part of the plot: Saint-Exupéry’s satirical criticism of adults and adulthood.

This Little Prince is a new story built around an old one

Saint-Exupéry’s short novel is part fairy tale, part satire, and part poetic, philosophical treatise on the nature of companionship in a lonely universe. By itself, the story of a lone traveler from a tiny planet is much too thin to form more than the bones of a feature-length film.

Around that story, director Mark Osborne has built a frame narrative that owes more to Pixar’s Up and the stories of Roald Dahl than to the Saint-Exupéry fable: It’s the tale of an overworked little girl, forced to spend every second of her waking hours studying for an honors academy, who befriends the narrator of the original book, a dotty old man (voiced by a grizzly Jeff Bridges) who claims to have once been a world-traveling aviator.

Our heroine meets the aviator after moving next door to his ramshackle house. His color and erratic whimsy provide a stark contrast to her own dreary, micromanaged life, organized by her hyper-vigilant workaholic mother, voiced with a good deal of empathy by Rachel McAdams. Over the course of their summer of friendship, the aviator draws his story, and spins her the tale of the Little Prince.

Long ago, when the aviator was still a young man, he crashed his plane in the Sahara Desert, where he met and befriended the Little Prince. Over time, the prince told the aviator about his various adventures, and the friends and people he had met along the way.

The prince's experiences were generally unique and magical, from finding a gorgeous solitary rose on his home planet to taming a tender fox on Earth. Often, the adults he encountered embodied various character traits like greed and conceit — or, in the aviator’s case, imagination and creativity.

Slowly, the lines of reality and fantasy blur as the power of the prince’s stories takes over the little girl’s life; she becomes obsessed with determining whether the aviator’s stories are real and whether the prince actually exists, ruining her mother’s exacting plans for the summer as she soaks up more of his stories and ultimately embarks on an adventure all her own.

Frustrated by the ambiguity of the end of the aviator’s tale — which concludes with the original ending of Saint-Exupéry’s novel, as the prince returns to his tiny planet in the sky — the girl determines to find the prince on her own. To her dismay, the prince she tracks down is no longer a boy, but a lowly janitor who has become a menial part of a brainwashed corporate workforce. Her quest to help him remember his past becomes a quest to restore the nature of childhood itself to a world that has forgotten it.

The book and the film's respective stories don’t always neatly converge

For fans of the book, the film's primary appeal lies in the way it recreates the look and feel of Saint-Exupéry’s original drawings. From its opening recreation of the book’s most famous drawing — a hat that is not really a hat, but a boa constrictor which has eaten an elephant — the movie spends much of its first third carefully recreating the familiar feeling of Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations.

Osborne’s choice not to locate the story within a specifically French setting is somewhat surprising. Instead, he chooses to focus on highlighting the difference between the dystopian modern city of the frame narrative and the colorful intergalactic universe the prince occupies. It’s a subtle contrast imbued with a touch of magical realism — we’re never quite sure how much of the prince’s world overlaps with the "real," and often the world of the frame narrative seems to blur easily into fantasy.

The aesthetics of the dreary, starless world outside of the prince's fantasy universe seem inspired primarily by the relentlessly gray, boxed-in world of Jacques Tati’s masterpiece of French cinema, Playtime, itself a hymn to the human spirit of ingenuity and individuality in a drab grown-up life. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer’s lush score, punctuated by a coterie of lively French-ish ditties, as always finds a perfect blend between the film’s different worlds.

Alas, the film itself doesn’t bridge that divide quite as smoothly. In hammering home its moral fable that adulthood in a capitalist society requires a necessary abandonment of art, beauty, and all things that make the world wondrous, the film’s frame narrative falls short of the profundity and poetry of the original tale.

Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince is full of subtlety and pathos, and never fails to leave room for interpretation, however much it might encourage you to think outside the hatbox. But in the film, our heroine’s desire to remain a child in a world determined to mold her into a relentlessly dull corporate drone feels too unsubtle to really blend perfectly with the original story around which it is built. Not even its reflection of the modern clash between millennials and Generation Olds can really save its drabness.

In the corporate-driven reality of Netflix’s The Little Prince, there is no use for whimsy, imagination, or art. "When are you going to forget about being a child?" asks the corporate bully who has devolved from counting the stars to stealing them all for himself. So preoccupied is the film with this theme of restoring childhood innocence that it forgets, at times, to build coherence between its two narratives.

The all-star cast, which includes the likes of Ricky Gervais, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, and James Franco, are generally underused — most are regrettably given just a scene or two, but they do a good job of connecting viewers to the Little Prince’s varied cast of friends. In the end, the film could have used more time with the "adult" version of the prince, whom we barely get to meet again before he and the girl are predictably restoring the balance of the cosmos.

Again and again, the film toys with the book’s most famous quote: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." Perhaps this question of what is essential feels redundant in an age when modern grown-ups are already refusing to relinquish their childhood relics — of which The Little Prince itself is one.

But for the A.O. Scotts of the world who remain skeptical of millennial immaturity, and those who must be reminded that life is more than material possessions and lifestyle regimens, The Little Prince should make a compelling, if not always fully incisive, case for clinging to the lessons of youth … even if one ends up wearing a snake for a hat.

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