The Little Prince (2015)

This unusual adaptation of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s widely read and beloved The Little Prince is intelligent, funny and deeply moving.

Little PrinceFrance
4.5*

Director:
Mark Osborne

Screenwriters:
Irena Brignull

Bob Persichetti
Directors of Photography:
Adel Abada

Kris Kapp

Running time: 110 minutes

Stories about father figures are nothing new, nor are stories about father figures who teach young girls about the world (just consider Jostein Gaarder’s masterful compendium of 3,000 years of philosophy in the novel Sophie’s World). However, when such a story is obliquely infused with critical insights about culture, religion and the magic of childhood thanks to a beloved novella that is equally accessible to children and adults, the result can be overwhelming.

Director Mark Osborne took up the burden of adapting the 70-year-old, 100-page-long novella, which continues to rank among the most-read and bestselling works in the world, for the big screen. An added challenge, beyond merely adding movement to the pictures and breathing physical life (and voice) into the words of the author, the late Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was that the original work would only comprise half of the final film’s narrative. Overcoming the sceptics, the director of Kung Fu Panda and a handful of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes has produced a stirring glimpse of childhood and of growing up that will amuse younger viewers and captivate elder viewers alike with light-hearted entertainment informed by the melancholia-tinged savvy of the original text.

Unexpectedly, the main character is not a young prince nor a mature aviator but a little girl who fittingly resembles Dora the Explorer. Following Saint-Exupéry’s lead, none of the characters have names (except for the all-important “Mr. Prince” in the final act) and instead bear descriptive titles such as “Little Girl”, “Mother”, “Fox”, “Aviator” and, of course, “The Little Prince”.

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who starred as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar, another star-struck feature) lives with her mother, a very serious auditor, in a nondescript city. Her father sends her the same snow globe containing a skyscraper for her birthday every single year. We can assume that both parents want their daughter to end up in some capacity as a successful worker, and therefore Little Girl is on the road to join the prestigious, strait-laced Werth Academy, where everyone is asked to work toward being “essential”. After a disastrous enrolment interview, Little Girl’s mother lays out a stringent plan for the summer holiday, during which any of her daughter’s free time will be minimal and limited to essential activities, such as eating and exercise.

Mother and daughter move in next to a dilapidated house, the scourge of the planned community where everyone wears the same greyscale-coloured outfits, whispers in very hushed tones about their neighbours and seem to be about as far removed from the exuberance and spontaneity of childhood as possible. The house, it turns out, belongs to the Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges), an eccentric, old man who represents both Saint-Exupéry and his alter ego creation, the aviator of his novella, and also calls to mind the grumpy but lovable Carl Fredricksen of the magnificent animation film Up.

Before long, just like philosopher Alberto Knox in Sophie’s World, the Aviator starts sending the Little Girl pages of text containing the aphorisms and adventures of the Little Prince, and thus begins a subversive but thrilling adventure that helps the child, quickly on her way to becoming an “adult”, reconnect with and hang on to her childhood impulses as long as possible.

From time to time, these pages turns into animations, and the effect of seeing a formerly static character come to life in front of our eyes will certainly bring a shiver to most viewers familiar with the novella. We see the Little Prince cleaning his tiny planet, trying to rid it of invasive baobab seeds and falling in love with a rose, here perfectly voiced by Marion Cotillard. He flees the Rose’s ever-increasing demands on his time and ends up on Earth, where he meets the aviator and learns valuable nuggets of wisdom from the fox, including the famous quotation, “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important”.

This story with the Little Prince is interwoven with the story of the Little Girl, and by using one text to inform another, Osborne also suggests that tales from many decades ago can continue to educate us about ourselves and inspire us to see the beauty of life instead of letting the rat race consume our energy and destroy our imagination. The focus throughout the story is that, as the smiling Aviator reminds us, “Growing up is not the problem; forgetting is”.

Although ostensibly created for children, animated films have developed to the point where something like The Little Prince can be entertaining for young ones and deeply moving for their parents, or anyone scared they might no longer be a child. There are multiple layers to this story, and those who know Saint-Exupéry’s tale well are just as likely to enjoy it as those who come to the film without any knowledge about the prince, the fox, the rose or the aviator. There is a beautiful message about religion (in the form of the rose), a melancholy background of absence, a rousing theme of friendship and a dramatic struggle against forgetting, which is a struggle for remembering.

We should always see the world through the eyes of a child, but more importantly, we should view life with the same sense of curiosity and fascination, perhaps even naiveté, that reconnects us with our younger selves, just like this film connects the old with the new in a tidy package that is invigorating, inspirational and intrepid depiction of a story we thought we knew, but which hits us twice as hard when the characters start to speak and the drawings start to move.

Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance
4*

Director:
Jean Vigo

Screenwriter:
Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

Journey to the Beginning of Time

Czechoslovakia
4.5*

Director:
Karel Zeman
Screenwriters:
Karel Zeman
Josef Antonín Novotný
Directors of Photography:
Václav Pazderník
Antonín Horák

Running time: 84 minutes

Original title: Cesta do pravěku

The fossils of prehistoric creatures housed at the National Museum are just a collection of bones, either spread out or assembled in a skeletal structure or set in stone as a result of petrification over millennia. They are not alive, and they only hint at the original. Sometimes, a museum may have an exhibit that is a representation of what one of these animals from long, long ago looked like. Usually, it’s a mammoth.

What the luminary Czechoslovak special effects director Karel Zeman realised, was exactly the same motivating force that must have compelled Steven Spielberg to shoot Jurassic Park in the early 1990s: The ability of the cinema, and of skilled filmmakers, to bring to life what until now we could only imagine, and make the past almost physically present.

Journey to the Beginning of Time was released in 1955, but as the country was isolated internationally at the time and would only open up a few months after Zeman’s death in 1989, his fame and magic were confined to the borders of the landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

What we realise more and more, however, is how far ahead of his time Zeman was. Inspired by Georges Méliès and explicitly referencing Jules Verne, whose work is the obvious forebear of both these artists, Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a beloved classic in the Czech Republic and deserves widespread recognition, even though its visual effects have by now, more than half a century later, been surpassed by computer-generated effects.

Three teenagers, Petr, Jenda and Toník, and a younger boy named Jirka set off on a journey through the ages. Having read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, they consider themselves explorers and set off on a canoe upstream from the present day all the way back to the beginning of life on earth, where the fossil of a trilobite that Jirka found in stone will be seen for real.

It is a journey that obviously boggles the mind, and we are left wanting for an explanation of how the children go about skipping from one time period to the other (the film does employ some mist to cover the transitions, though), but what is obvious is that these machinations of the fiction are not what we should be focused on. The real reason we watch the film is to see the prehistoric animals come to life, and do so in the presence (and in the same frame!) as the children.

Petr, the de facto leader of the group, obliquely speaks for the viewer, too, when he observes:

We haven’t made this journey just for fun; we came to study what prehistoric life really looked like. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to do just that, to see everything with our own eyes.

Indeed, this is a privilege, and as the children travel back from the time of the cavemen to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond, we find ourselves constantly aware of the fact that while the events are about as possible as time travel, the thrill of seeing creatures from these two very different times in one place is extraordinary, and Zeman assembles and stages the actions with a very firm and steady hand.

While the special effects are not on the more or less seamless technical level of Jurassic Park, they are breathtaking considering the film was made in the early 1950s, in a country that had a few months earlier been racked by its infamous currency reform that cut the worth of everyone’s money by 90% while prices remained the same (a tale told in great detail by the remarkable 2012 film, Ve stínu). Often, the stop-motion animal movements would seem to be too fast or too slow, or when the mammoth stands still but raises its trunk, the bushes around it move without reason with jerky movements.

But Zeman achieves some impressive results during the staging of a nighttime fight between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and while many animals don’t have a reflection in the water because they were not shot next to the river, but separately, the Brontosaurus’s appearance in the river, reflection included, is gorgeous.

At another point, the camera follows the enormous dragonflies called Meganeura as they fly between the trees, the camera apparently tracking down below while looking up at them. The effect is powerful and this technically ambitious sequence is very rewarding.

In some ways, the film can be called superficial, but covering the various life forms of 5 billion years in 80 minutes is no small feat. From time to time, mention is made of life in the present, and the juxtaposition is worthwhile, for example when club mosses were the size of trees, their eventual stratification would give rise to coal mining in the 20th century.

The four boys, with the exception of the inquisitive Jirka, don’t get up to much trouble, and have a surprisingly easy time of all this travelling through the ages, so in the end we learn little about them, but their awe at being able to see all these creatures is something the viewer understands all too well, as Zeman’s film awakens a curiosity in us for the life of things we may never really have considered beyond the bare bones of a museum exhibit.