A Beautifully Crafted Story About Friendship
A beautifully crafted animated film The Little Prince, inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved 1942 masterpiece, is one of the biggest animated movies to launch from Europe this year, and will be released in South Africa on December 11.
First published in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) has sold over 80 million copies worldwide. It’s considered the most famous work of Saint-Exupéry, the French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator.
The novella is both the most-read and most-translated French book, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as braille), it has become one of the best-selling books ever published, and has sold over 145 million copies worldwide.
The film centres on the friendship between an eccentric old Aviator (voice of Jeff Bridges) and the very grown-up young girl who moves in to the house next door with her extremely grown-up Mother (voice of Rachel McAdams).
Through the pages of the Aviator’s book and his drawings, the Little Girl (voice of Mackenzie Foy) learns the story of how he long ago crashed in a desert and met the Little Prince (Riley Osborne), an enigmatic boy from a distant planet.
The Aviator’s experiences and the tale of the Little Prince’s travels to other worlds bring the Little Girl and the Aviator closer as they embark on a remarkable adventure together.
Saint-Exupéry (29 June 1900 – 31 July 1944) was exiled to North America after the outbreak of World War II, having been a successful commercial pilot before the war. He wrote three of his best known works, including The Little Prince, whilst in the USA, though he was in failing health and under great stress.
Prior to The Little Prince, an earlier memoir by the author charted his aviation experiences in the Sahara Desert. It was those experiences which inspired him to write and illustrate The Little Prince. Among his other aviation-related writings are Southern Mail, Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars.
The original story of the Little Prince follows him as he leaves his home planet and his friend, the Rose, to visit other asteroids inhabited by a series of flawed figures before arriving on Earth. That’s where he meets the story’s narrator, the Aviator. In the book’s poignant conclusion, he decides to abandon his body and return to his home planet.
Sadly, Saint-Exupéry wasn’t able to enjoy the success of the book’s publication. Having returned to the war in 1943, he disappeared in 1944 while flying a reconnaissance mission for the Free French Forces over the Mediterranean. In 2004, the remains of his crashed plane were discovered, along with a bracelet belonging to the author, off the coast of Marseille.
An innovative animated film
The innovative film adaptation is directed and produced by Mark Osborne, who co- directed DreamWorks’ Oscar-nominated movie Kung Fu Panda and is produced by Aton Soumache, Dimitri Rassam and Alexis Vonarb, co-founders of On Animation Studios, and an international team of extremely talented animated feature film professionals was drawn to both Paris and Montreal to create the film.
The screenplay for The Little Prince was written by Irena Brignull (The Boxtrolls) and Bob Persichetti based on a story conceived by Mark Osborne.
The world of the Little Girl and her Mother are rendered in the very “grown-up” style of CG animation, used cleverly as a framing device for the classic story of The Little Prince, which comes to life in a very “childlike” technique of stop-motion animation, representing the eyes and imagination of the Little Girl.
The Challenges of Adapting a Classic
The long, rewarding journey to adapt Saint-Exupéry’s classic work into a modern animated film began over eight years ago when French producers Aton Soumache, Dimitri Rassam and Alexis Vonard got the go-ahead from Olivier d’Agay, president of the Saint-Exupéry Estate, to develop a theatrical feature based on the property.
“We felt an enormous responsibility to do justice to this timeless novel, which is loved by so many people around the world,” says Soumache. “Anyone who reads the book has their own personal impression of the Little Prince and his world, so it’s not possible to do a straight-forward adaptation. I remember my father reading the book to me even before I went to school, and many people have a very strong personal connection to this work. So it was very important for us to find a director who could imagine a new way of approaching this book.”
Producer Dimitri Rassam points out, “Since the book is so well known and loved all over the world, we felt that we needed to find a director who would be very respectful of the property, but would be able to deliver an entertaining, bold vision as well. It was important that the creative team would be respectful of the book’s fundamentals but didn’t feel shackled by it.”
Both Soumache and Rassam believe that they struck gold when American director Mark Osborne agreed to helm the movie. “At first Mark didn’t want to even think about it because it was too important a work, but we knew he could do a great job,” says Soumache. “He had already directed DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” which featured two very crucial Chinese cultural elements—Kung Fu and the panda—and that movie was unanimously loved and praised in China. He had found a way to take that subject very seriously. When he agreed to think about The Little Prince, he went away and thought very hard about it. Six months later, he came back with a pitch that blew us all away.”
Osborne had created a new story around the original material, which allowed everyone to revisit The Little Prince through the eyes of the Little Girl next door. “We were very lucky to have Mark, who is a talented director with such a clear vision lead the way,” says Soumache. “The fact that we are able to tell the story of the Prince using stop-motion animation adds another wonderful layer to the film. We see the familiar illustrations by Saint-Exupéry come to life in a real, tangible way.”
“Towards the beginning of the movie, when the Little Girl discovers the Aviator’s book for the first time, we see this stop-motion world through her eyes, and it’s a very emotional moment,” notes Soumache. “You really get a strong connection between the CG-animated world of the Little Girl and the stop-motion universe of the Little Prince. It pays a wonderful tribute to the book.”
“First and foremost, Mark wanted to make a great movie, but the book and its message were both very close to his heart,” says Rassam. “I’ve seen the movie many times now, and it makes me cry every time. As a father of a three-year-old daughter, it really resonates with me, just as it did when my parents read the book to me when I was young. The Little Prince unites the family around a great story. I believe that is the heart of our movie.”
The Director’s Perfect Pitch
Mark Osborne recalls the day he first heard about the project from his agent. “Back in 2009, my agent asked me if I knew of the book, because two French producers wanted to make a big animated movie based on it,” he remembers. “I knew the book very well and that’s why my first instinct was to say no. I believed that there was no way you could do a straight adaptation. But I thought about it more and I realized that the material was just too good to say no to. It was the chance of a lifetime to build a story from this starting point; the themes of the book are so rich and resonate so much. Additionally, the opportunity to protect the book with the movie was something I couldn’t pass up. When I suggested we build a story around the book, to protect it instead of expand it, I was elated that this was agreeable to the estate.”
Osborne reveals that the book deeply affected him on a personal level when it was given to him by his wife years ago back when they were dating. The two were college students at the time and trying to keep their long-distance relationship alive. “The Little Prince brought us back together,” he admits. “I paid very close attention to it. It means so much to me and to everyone who has read the book, because it really connects you to the significant relationships and friendships in your life.”
The director says he approached the movie as a riddle to be solved. “The big question was how can you make a cinematic experience that parallels or equals the very deep emotional experience of reading of the book?” says the director. “I tested the boundaries by pitching my ultimate dream scenario to Dimitri over a lunch, which included the radical idea of mixing CG animation with stop-motion. My big idea was to explore the touching relationship between the eccentric older version of the Aviator and the Little Girl who moves in next door. I felt that ultimately it would need to be the story of the Little Girl learning to say good-bye to her friend, which would deeply parallel the book. It seemed like the right way to approach the very delicate material. But honestly, I never expected that it was all going to come to pass.”
Fortunately, both the author’s estate and the producers loved the director’s passionate pitch. In October of 2010, Osborne put together a small team of artists and writers in Los Angeles to brainstorm and create concept art and the first draft of the screenplay. Then Osborne moved with his family to Paris to begin work on the pre- production of the film. Once there, a team of storyboard artists, look dev artists, character designers and production pipeline experts was assembled to begin the process of making the dream of the movie come true.
The director says that during this time, not only was he pitching to artists and actors, he was also pitching the movie to distributors all over the world using a “magic suitcase” full of hand-made visual aids specifically create to communicate the tone and passion for the project. “Over the last four years I think I have pitched the movie close to 400 times,” he recalls. “An amazingly talented model maker named Joe Schmidt created this suitcase, which held the art book, and told the story of the movie visually, and it was wonderful to see how everyone was amazed by how we found a way to both honour the original book and tell a new story around it to protect it. Everyone involved took a lot of risks to help tell this story, and that has been a hugely fulfilling process for us.”
As it turns out, the journey to bring The Little Prince from the page to the screen also benefited from an unusual production history. The project, which began with Osborne and his small team in Los Angeles, then moved to Paris during the development and storyboard stages. For the final phases of the animation, production and lighting, the team moved to Montreal in order to maximize the tax benefits offered to a French-Canadian project (a co-venture between Onyx Entertainment in Paris and Mikros in Montreal).
“It’s quite different from making a movie at DreamWorks where you use all the in-house talent,” explains Osborne. “We hired everyone from the outside and established our own independent production company and developed our own animation pipeline based on what we needed. It provided us with a great opportunity because we weren’t tied down to any existing structures. On the down side, we were building the tracks while the train was running, so it was quite scary too.”
Osborne’s producing partner Jinko Gotoh (“Finding Nemo”, “Fantasia 2000”, “9”, “The Illusionist”) also believes that Osborne’s approach will resonate with general audiences as much as it will with lifelong fans of the book. “I’m hopeful that this movie will appeal to all movie audiences, not just animation enthusiasts. The book lovers will see that we’ve protected the book. And if you don’t know the book,
the film will give you an insight into just how special it is. The mix of CG and stop- motion also adds a dimension to the visual storytelling that we haven’t seen before in an animated movie.”