A cinematic adaptation of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved 1943 novella, is a risky proposition. There have been adaptations before, including the live-action version directed by Stanley Donen in 1974, but none have really captured the magic of the original book, or have done justice to Saint-Exupery’s distinctive, cherished drawings. Now, however, “The Little Prince” (“Hoshi no Ojisama to Watashi”) has opened in Japan, approximately four months before its U.S. release, slated for March 18, 2016.
Back in June, director Mark Osborne and the movie’s character supervisor, Hidetaka Yosumi, came to Tokyo for an early promotional tour, and to show the press some of the completed footage. (At this point the movie was still in postproduction.)
“The story was so precious to me, as it is to millions of people worldwide,” Osborne says. “I really wanted to get it right, which is why I moved to Paris for two years with my family to work on the film while getting a sense of the kind of environment in which Saint-Exupery lived and worked.”
“The Little Prince” merges two creative spheres: one is the stop-motion animation segment that recounts the original story of a pilot meeting a little boy in the desert. This is the titular prince, who dropped down to Earth after leaving his home, Asteroid B612. These scenes are lovely and even familiar; Osborne and his team constructed each frame by hand, and everything was crafted entirely from paper.
“Because Saint-Exupery’s original illustrations meant so much to so many people, including myself, we really wanted to keep the delicate, hand-drawn effect,” Osborne says.
The other world is the present day, in which the pilot has aged into an old man (voice-over by Jeff Bridges) with a habit of hoarding things who plans to fly his ancient propeller plane, now a heap of broken metal in his backyard.
The old aviator lives next door to a little girl (Mackenzie Foy) and her high-achieving single mom (Rachel McAdams), who is fixated on sending her daughter to a super-elite academy and has the girl’s life all planned out, down to the last minute of her every waking hour.
This section has a totally different feel from the stop-motion animation scenes, and the girl’s mother is a bit scary, appearing in a gray suit with sleek bobbed hair, both stereotypical marks of a busy and domineering single mom.
The daughter and her mother were developed by Hidetaka Yosumi, one of the very few Japanese animators working abroad.
“I think animators are part of an emerging artist class,” Yosumi says in a separate interview. “We work from project to project, fly from one animation studio to another. We live for three-month periods in various cities around the world. And animators are always in high demand, we’re never out of a job. But none are in demand like Japanese animators. They’re on every director’s wish list.”
Despite this, Yosumi believes that very few leave their desks in Japan to try their luck overseas.
“I think it’s because they’re not confident about their English skills,” Yosumi says. “But animation and CG has its own language, so you don’t need to speak English. I couldn’t at first, but then I quickly realized that it didn’t matter very much. More important is the willingness to go out there. These days, animators are not just techies or people who sit in front of computers all day — they need an actor’s sensibility and they have to be physically nimble, otherwise we couldn’t create the characters’ movements on the screen. And the industry is still new, it’s still in the process of developing, and so it’s a very exciting time to be a CG artist and animator.”
For Osborne, “The Little Prince” was a deeply personal project — the book was a gift from a girlfriend when they were both students in an arts college and it became one of the symbols of their relationship.
“Now my girlfriend is my wife and I still have the note she gave me along with the book. That’s why I couldn’t treat this as just a business project,” Osborne says. ” ‘The Little Prince’ had so much meaning and memories of a shared experience for both of us.” (Aptly, their son Riley, who also had a part in another of Osborne’s films, “Kung Fu Panda,” did the voice-over for the prince.) Having said that, Osborne was well aware that readers of “The Little Prince” (over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide) will have their own treasured lines, unforgettable scenes and personal memories connected to the story.
“So I wanted to honor the legacy of the Prince and the original spirit of the book as well,” he says.
In his strong desire to keep that spirit, Osborne created a scene in which the daughter reads a page from “The Little Prince” — written in its original French dialogue — and understands it perfectly. Now, that seems a bit of a stretch, even for an academic whiz-kid.
“Maybe so,” laughs Osborne. “But, ultimately, I wanted people who had never read the book to see the movie and say, ‘Wow, now I want to go and read it, I want to know the real meaning of those words and see the illustrations.'”
Some things are too good to keep in the family, especially when they involve a Prince and his little rose.