Although I managed to pass through childhood without any exposure to the story, I’ve learned that French author/aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fantastical novella The Little Prince is one of the most successful and widely read children’s stories of the 20th century. I mention this by way of stating that I approached this film adaptation without any feelings toward the source material, so others can hold forth on whether the picture does justice to de Saint-Exupéry’s writing. Watching the film of The Little Prince as its own entity, I found little to like despite the imaginative narrative and worthwhile themes. Director Stanley Donen, a giant of studio-era musical films whose career was winding down when he made The Little Prince, brings a fair amount of style in the form of clever fisheye-lens photography and general exuberance, but the combination of coldly professional acting by the leading players and distractingly artificial settings for many scenes makes the piece feel perfunctory rather than passionate.
It’s also not a good sign that when famed choreographer-director Bob Fosse shows up in a rare acting role, he completely takes over the film for several minutes with his signature brand of cinematic and physical movement; although merely credited as choreographer for his own sequence, Fosse likely had a hand in the design of camera shots and editing, as well, and his bit is the liveliest stretch of the movie.
Anyway, the story of The Little Prince must lose something in translation, because as presented onscreen, it’s insipid. When a character known only as the Pilot (Richard Kiley) lands his plane in the Sahara after experiencing engine trouble, he meets a strange young boy, the Little Prince (Steven Warner), who claims to have come from an asteroid in outer space. The Little Prince regales the Pilot with tales of his encounters with strange characters, including a friendly Fox (Gene Wilder), a demanding Rose (Donna McKechnie), and a pernicious Snake (Fosse). Each encounter taught the Little Prince a lesson, and so does his friendship with the Pilot.
As communicated through twee songs by the famed duo of Alan Jay Lerner (who also wrote the screenplay) and Frederick Loewe (who also composed the score), the Little Prince’s adventure says something about the importance of retaining a child’s innocence even in adult life. Yet while the content is admirable, the execution is blah. Exterior daytime scenes in the desert are visually dull, nighttime exterior scenes shot on a soundstage are phony-looking, and the tricks Donen uses to simulate outer-space environments are gimmicky. Yet it’s ultimately the performances that keep The Little Prince from achieving liftoff. Kiley, a lovely actor with a resonant voice, is too theatrical, and young Steven Warner comes across as an automaton doing what he’s told. So, even with Fosse’s dynamic dance sequence and Wilder’s touchy-feely extended cameo, there’s little heart in what should be a deeply moving parable.
The Little Prince: FUNKY