The Little Prince (2015)


On top of the world.

On top of the world.

(2016) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Mackenzie Foy, Jacquie Barnbrook, Jeffy Branion, Marcel Bridges. Directed by Mark Osborne

 

In 1943, French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the novella The Little Prince which while ostensibly a children’s book has become one of the most beloved books of all time. Poetic, bittersweet in places, joyful in others, it examines the difficulties of growing up, the importance of love and the journey of life. It not only appeals to the young and the young at heart, but also reams of material have been written on the underlying themes. A 1974 live action film was until now the best-known adaptation of the book.

This, the first animated version of the film, pads out the original story with a framing story. A stressed out Little Girl (Foy) is pushed by her overbearing mother (McAdams) to ace an interview into the prestigious Werth Academy, which would guarantee her a productive future. Her mother, who wears business suits with ties in the style of men, is gravely disappointed when the Little Girl blows her interview when a question she didn’t study for is asked.

Discouraged but not defeated, her mother moves the Little Girl to an area where she has a repeat chance of getting into Werth. There her mother outlines a Life Plan for her daughter that she expects the young girl to stick to, but fate has other plans. It turns out they’ve moved next door to an Aviator (Bridges) whose attempts to start his airplane ends up in disaster. In a neighborhood of block house conformists, he is the odd man out. Naturally he and the Little Girl bond and he tells her the tale of a strange thing that happened to him when he crashed in the Sahara desert years earlier.

There he’d met a Little Prince (R. Osborne) who had was visiting our planet from Asteroid B612, a tiny place which was always threatened to be overrun by insidious baobab trees. One day, he discovered a beautiful rose was growing on his tiny world. The Rose (Cotillard) implored him to protect her with a glass cover, which the adoring Prince did. He and the Rose were deeply in love, but he was disturbed by her vanity. At last, feeling abused by the Rose, he decides to leave his asteroid and see what else was out there. He discovered several other asteroids, each inhabited by an adult with a failing; such as the Conceited Man (Gervais) who took bows whenever he felt the need, or the Businessman (Brooks) who endlessly counted the stars so that he could own them all. Finally he had come back to Earth only to discover thousands of Roses and realized that his own Rose was nothing special.

=However, a Fox (Franco) that he’d tamed informed him that his Rose was special because he loved her and urged him to see things with his heart, which would allow him to see much more clearly. Desperately lonely and wanting to see his Rose again, he travels home to the stars the only way he knows how – to allow the Snake (Del Toro) to bite him and allow him to leave his cumbersome body behind. The Aviator grieves for the loss of his friend but is mystified when his body disappears.

The Aviator, now an old man, succumbs to illness and has to be hospitalized. Disillusioned and wanting to escape her life, the Little Girl goes in search of the Little Prince along with a fox stuffed toy which has magically come to life. Using the Aviator’s plane, she flies to the asteroids and eventually finds the Prince (Rudd) who is no longer little and has forgotten everything. Can she help him remember?

Mark Osborne is best known for directing Kung Fu Panda which had to its advantage some cultural exploration. This is a much tougher sell; for one thing, while kids today are fairly familiar with The Little Prince it doesn’t really translate well to the screen. It is also a short book; the 1974 live action version padded itself out with musical numbers and dancing. In some ways this is way more ambitious; not only does it add to the story with the Little Girl and the old man Aviator but it mixes techniques; the Little Girl’s story is told in CGI, the Little Prince with stop-motion animation. The Little Prince section also takes as its inspiration the original illustrations Saint-Exupéry hand-drew for the book. It’s not quite uncanny, but the stop-motion is enough like those original drawings to make one feel quite at home, especially if you grew up with them.

One of the chief complaints I have with the movie is one I have with the book; with the exception of the Aviator, all the adults in the book are pretty much jerks. They are way self-involved, uncaring of the needs of a child to be a child, they put far too much emphasis on achievement and material things and worst of all, they are soulless. The Little Girl’s mom is completely unsympathetic and the Aviator is at best eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic. Even the grown-up Little Prince is frightened and spineless. Granted, some adults are some of these things but what the movie is in essence telling children is not to trust adults AT ALL. Not even their parents.

The animation is quite stylized and while the CGI looks pretty standard (even sub-standard in places), the stop motion is beautiful and wondrous, capturing the wide-eyed amazement of childhood. While some of the details of the original story are changed and some characters eliminated (for example, the drunkard is cut out of the movie), the essence of the story and more importantly the spirit of the story are both intact.
The movie enjoyed a successful theatrical run globally and Netflix gave it a fairly limited theatrical release and I have to say it’s a bit of a shame. I’d love to have seen this on the big screen. Perhaps an enterprising art house near you will book it even if it is on Netflix. I suspect seeing this in a theater will make this an even more riveting experience for young and old alike.

REASONS TO GO: Much of the spirit of the beloved book is captured here. The mix of stop-motion animation and CGI is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: The animation can be a bit primitive looking at times. Few of the adults in the film have any value to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril and violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the highest-grossing animated film to be made in France to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lights Out

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The Good Dinosaur


Fireflies sold separately.

Fireflies sold separately.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, John Ratzenberger, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant, Jack McGraw, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Marcus Scribner, Peter Sohn, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Mandy Freund. Directed by Peter Sohn

What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? They’re big, they’re extinct and they capture a child’s imagination like almost nothing else. But what if dinos were still around?

In the latest Pixar animated opus (the studio’s eighteenth), the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dominant lifeform on earth skips off the atmosphere and zooms past the world, startling a group of grazing dinosaurs. Flash forward an indeterminate number of years and the dinosaurs have become an agrarian society, with an Apatosaurus family running a farm. Poppa (Wright) and Momma (McDormand) Apatosaurus are expecting with three eggs about to hatch. Out pops Buck (Scribner), Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and lastly Arlo (Ochoa) who turns out to be something of a runt.

As on the farms most of us are familiar with, the entire family is expected to help. Arlo tries his best, but as the runt of the family he’s afraid of everything and despite his father’s patient efforts to make a man outta him, Arlo continues to be ruled by fear. When it is discovered that a critter is stealing corn from their grain silo, Arlo is given the task of trapping the critter, which he does, and killing it, which doesn’t quite work out when the critter – which turns out to be a young human boy, scares him and gets away.

Exasperated, Poppa gives chase, bringing along Arlo but the movie takes a Disney turn – you’ll understand when you see it . Things grow a bit desperate on the family farm after that and Arlo is asked to step up. He does his best – at least his heart is in the right place – but he doesn’t have the strength and stature to make much of a difference.

When a freak storm washes Arlo away in a raging river, he is saved by the human child. Nicknamed Spot (Bright) by Arlo, the two begin a journey back to Arlo’s home. Along the way they’ll traverse a beautiful but dangerous landscape full of nature’s fury but also of other dinosaurs, like colorful velociraptors, rootin’ tootin’ T-Rexes and opportunistic pterodactyls. They’ll also form a unique and lasting bond that only comes from enduring the worst that nature can throw at you and surviving.

This is something of a dino-Western, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. Essentially, think of this as a John Ford Western with dinosaurs in the saddle (although they actually don’t ride anything – well, Spot rides Arlo but that doesn’t count since the horses in Ford’s films generally didn’t talk). That fusion of dinosaur story and Western is the most inventive thing about the movie story-wise – more about that in a moment.

This movie can really be categorized as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starting with the good, this is the most beautiful looking of all of Pixar’s films, with gorgeously rendered landscapes that are nearly photorealistic, looking very much like Big Sky country – I’m not sure what landscapes inspired the artists at Pixar but wherever it was, I wouldn’t mind going there myself.

The bad is the story. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from plenty of other Disney and Pixar films; young protagonist overcomes adversity and personal tragedy, discovers the value of friendship and/or family and makes a journey – physical or otherwise – to reunite with his/her family. The only thing missing is a princess singing a song to the woodland animals.

The ugly are the dinosaurs (and humans) themselves. Amidst all the photorealistic grandeur are these cartoonish looking humans and worse, dinosaurs that look more like action figures than dinosaurs. I’m thinking that Disney didn’t want to frighten kids unnecessarily – after all, Dinosaur isn’t considered one of Disney’s big hits – so they made them as non-threatening as possible. That’s all fine and dandy – Disney’s gotta sell merch, after all – but why go to the trouble of creating such amazing environments and then filling it with creatures that don’t match? It makes the plastic look of the dinosaurs here even more glaring, along with their goofy cartoon expressions. It would have made more sense to create a more cartoon-y environment for these action figures to play in if they were intending to go this route.

And why is that a problem? Because it comes off very cynical, like the movie is an excuse for Disney to sell toys. And, to be honest, nearly every movie aimed at kids is just that. But it’s so glaring here that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly of parents who will exit the theater knowing they will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for The Good Dinosaur-related toys and games this Christmas. My advice; just say no. It’s good for a kid to learn the lesson that they can’t always get what they want. As long as they get what they need, which isn’t anthropomorphic movie-related toys.

Usually with Pixar I’m as entertained as the children around me – certainly Inside Out from earlier this year was a film that I enjoyed as an adult perhaps as much and maybe even more than the kids in the audience. That story was imaginative and the environment equally so. There isn’t any of the magic from that film here. What we have here is one big commercial for action figures in the most beautiful backyard ever. Caveat emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous environments. Plenty of Christmas toy-buying opportunities.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian story. Characters are surprisingly weak-looking.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slated to be released over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, but due to production problems which led to original director Bob Peterson being replaced, the movie was pushed back to the spot that Finding Dory was originally slated for, prompting that movie’s delay until 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Can You Dig This?