As adults, many of us hope to be declared essential. There is a gravitas to that word, a sense of security. It leads one to believe that if we are not in the right place at the right time things will just stop happening. It’s not true, of course, but it’s drilled into our heads regardless that it is what we should strive to be. What’s better – what’s far more life-affirming at the end of it all – is to be declared “special”. It means to be loved and cherished regardless of being singular or unique. It says that to just one person in the world we are singular and unique, even if we seem like so many others.
Being special to any one person cannot come from hard work or study. It can only come from patience, love, and attention. What’s most amazing is that while all of those qualities might seem like the most mature of characteristics, they are most readily found in children.
THE LITTLE PRINCE begins by introducing us to a Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy). She and her mother (Rachel McAdams) have spent countless hours preparing for the entrance exams to a prestigious middle school called The Werth Academy. To help her daughter’s chances, the mother moves them to a new neighbourhood closer to Werth’s home district, into a house that comes at a low price thanks to an eccentric neighbour.
While The Little Girl tries to study to allow herself the best chances to succeed at Werth, she grows increasingly curious about the kooky man next door. She is only somewhat enticed when a paper airplane containing a story and a sketch are lobbed through her bedroom window. Having a hole blown through her living room wall by a wayward propeller only entices her all the more. After a timid creep into the backyard next to hers, she is brought face-to-face with The Aviator (Jeff Bridges).
The old man seems more than a little crazy, however he stands in stark contrast to The Little Girl’s pragmatic mother. Instead of her every waking hour being scheduled and regimented, The Aviator encourages The Little Girl to look to the stars. There, he says, she will gain ideas, imagine possibilities, and most importantly, remember the people she cares about most.
The Aviator knows this, because such romantic passtimes allow him to reminisce about The Little Prince – the subject of the story and sketch on that paper airplane. The Aviator begins to tell The Little Girl tale after tale of his encounter many years ago with a strange Little Prince he encountered after crashing his plane in the desert.
Day after day, the girl returns to hear about The Prince, the asteroid he called home, the fox he met, and the rose he loved. To hear The Aviator tell it, The Prince seemed as though he lived to dream, to love, to explore, and to ask questions about the world around him. All of that stands in stark contrast to the life she seems to be preparing for.
Early in THE LITTLE PRINCE, there is a wonderful visual joke revolving around the admissions process for a private school The Little Girl is trying to attend. During the interview, she is asked just one question. Since she has been preparing endlessly for an entirely different question, she botches the answer. The punchline of the joke is that the answer to the question she was asked was all around her in the waiting room she was nervously sitting in just moments earlier.
It’s a clever way of getting a point across early; sometimes we are far too consumed with working on what we think we should be doing, that we fail to stop and look around. Besides missing out on the wonders of the world that surround us, it’s entirely possible that we might miss the answer to the things that most perplex us.
Moments like that are what make THE LITTLE PRINCE special. To strictly bring the book to life wouldn’t have been enough, since it’s a tremendously short book (trust me on that). To turn the film into something special, the filmmakers needed to bring extra context befitting the spirit of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic. But how? What approach could possibly be grafted on to something so elegant that makes it more tangible for our modern sensibilities?
What this movie does is build upon the morals of the original story. It teaches us to listen a little closer to Aviators we meet in our day-to-day, and be wary of would-be kings who want to reign over everything. Such ideas might seem like flights of fancy, but they exist in the world we live in, and as adults, we have changed the way we approach them…just as we have changed the way we approach stories like THE LITTLE PRINCE.
We are forever consumed with wondering “…and then what happened?”. We are seldom satisfied with ambiguity or inconclusiveness, and can hardly be trusted to imagine for ourselves. We want something finite and self-contained. If it were up to us, Calvin and Hobbes could never end like this – it would end in some pitiful way like Calvin finally growing-up. THE LITTLE PRINCE knows this and uses it against us. It knows that no grown-up in the world could be satisfied with the original story’s conclusion of The Little Prince just leaving The Aviator behind. Logical adults would want to know what happened then – to The Prince, to his asteroid, to The Rose, and so forth. That desperate desire leads us to a story like this, which says “Well, I’ll tell you…but you aren’t going to like it”.
Therein lays yet another lesson, for children and adult alike: that it is always better to declare “let’s read it again!” than to ask “what happened next?”
The crux of THE LITTLE PRINCE is about the gap between what children see and what grown-ups believe. Mature, responsible adults everywhere widen that gap with every passing year, trying to take more and more of the spontaneity and creativity out of their children’s lives. Study harder, practice longer, play less, prepare yourself. While all of these directions and guidelines come from a good place, they come at the cost of what makes childhood so special. It will fill the world with a lot of doers and workers, but far less thinkers and dreamers.
A film like this makes the grim future clear, and it’s not one that any of us want to live to see. It might be too late for many of us, but it’s never too late for the next generation. They can still understand the difference between being special and being essential with very little coaxing. After all, where we are stuck seeing the old hat, they still see the snake that ate the elephant.