There's no way to sugarcoat this: It seems almost impossible that admirers of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince — of which there are millions — will be satisfied by the new animated film bearing its name. Saint-Exupéry's much-loved story accounts for only about 30 minutes of the 108-minute film, reaching its sad climax before the film is half over. Even then, the book is shortchanged. The entire sequence in which the prince visits other planets and meets various figures of adult life (a king, a businessman, an alcoholic), which fills nearly a quarter of the book, lasts less than two and a half minutes and omits half of the prince's visits altogether.
So what does Mark Osborne, the director of Kung Fu Panda, do to fill the remaining hour and fifteen minutes? The bulk of the film is a framing story about a young girl (named simply the Young Girl) under pressure from her workaholic mother to study for enrollment at a prestigious private school. TYG, left alone with a pile of homework, becomes intrigued by a neighbor, an eccentric old man who is rebuilding an airplane in his backyard. He is, of course, Saint-Exupéry's Aviator — and he presents the Girl with his handwritten memoir of crash landing in the desert and his encounter with the strange space traveler.
The present-day part of the story is in generic CGI, while the segments based on the book are executed in stop-motion animation and retain some of the story's charm. The excellent vocal cast, which includes Jeff Bridges, Ricky Gervais, Benicio del Toro and James Franco, certainly helps. The climactic section, in which the framing story and the Saint-Exupéry characters are merged, is beneath discussion, an insult to anyone who has ever read the book.
The filmmakers behind The Little Prince have stated that the story of the Young Girl and her Power-Mom, banal as it is, was a response to a report that young girls are underrepresented as animated characters. This may be admirable in principle, but it also seems contrived and calculated, at the expense of a literary favorite. Like the oft-quoted remark comparing camels to horses, this Little Prince is a revered and elusive classic, redesigned by a committee.