Shortly after Mark Osborne accepted the daunting job to direct an adaptation of the celebrated French novella "The Little Prince," the animator was in the Morgan Library in New York, viewing author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original manuscript and drawings for the book.
"You could see [Saint-Exupéry's] scribbles and his cross-outs," said Osborne, who had taken on the project as a follow-up to co-directing the Oscar-nominated first "Kung Fu Panda" movie for DreamWorks Animation. "It was such a fragile document, I thought, what if these pages caught fire? What if they blew out the window? What if they had never been published at all?"
The power and vulnerability of the manuscript, which Saint-Exupéry had casually tossed on the table of a friend in a crumpled paper bag as he was leaving New York to rejoin World War II as a pilot in the 1940s, would become a central idea in Osborne's movie, an animated feature which opens theatrically and is available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday.
Using the tools of both stop-motion and computer-generated animation, Osborne wraps Saint-Exupéry's small, poetic tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of companionship inside a modern-day framing story about a rigidly parented little girl who develops a friendship with a warm and whimsical old neighbor.
First published in 1943, "The Little Prince" is a challenging and high-stakes big-screen adaptation — the quiet, elegiac parable has sold more than 140 million copies worldwide, been translated into more than 250 languages and adapted into plays, ballets, operas and a 1974 live-action movie directed by Stanley Donen.
The story is not only widely read but passionately loved, particularly in countries like France, Germany and Brazil, where children read it in school.
"I knew we were never going to please everybody," Osborne said. "No adaptation ever does. I felt that to do something bold was going to honor the legacy of the book more than to do something safe."
Written by Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti from a story by Osborne and Perischetti, Osborne's "The Little Prince" tells the tale of the Little Girl, voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who is struggling to keep up with the expectations of her harried tiger mom (Rachel McAdams) when she meets an eccentric aviator (Jeff Bridges) who shares with her a lovely, never-published book — "The Little Prince." While the Little Girl's story is told in CG animation, "The Little Prince" unfolds in stop-motion, with Osborne's son, Riley, supplying the voice of the character.
Osborne, 45, first read "The Little Prince" in the early 1990s, while an art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., when his girlfriend, who who would later become his wife, gave him a copy as he was contemplating a transfer to the California Institute of the Arts, where he would ultimately graduate with a bachelor's degree in experimental animation. The book's theme of holding onto some of the wonder of childhood as an adult resonated with him.
"When I read the book at 20, I was struggling with what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a grownup," Osborne said.
By 2010, he had directed an Academy Award-nominated short film, "More," a live-action feature, "Dropping Out," and worked on the "SpongeBob SquarePants" TV series and movie when he was contacted by producers looking to make a CG-animated feature of "The Little Prince." Instead, Osborne suggested an ambitious idea to tell the story with a mixture of the two animation styles. His conceit was a hit with Saint-Exupéry's estate, a group that includes some 72 descendants, but necessitated raising a budget of $77.5 million — a huge figure for an independent animated film.
In order to raise the money and recruit collaborators, Osborne traveled with an ornate wooden suitcase designed by a model maker on the stop-motion animated movie "Coraline." Powered by double-A batteries, the case has stars that light up, viewfinder-style glasses that show the different styles of animation he envisioned and a reproduction of Saint-Exupéry's handwritten manuscript. When Osborne carried the case in to meet composer Hans Zimmer, Zimmer folded his arms and asked, "What are you doing to my book?" before ultimately signing on to do the film's music. When one Italian financier saw the handmade manuscript inside, she burst into tears.
While working with his writers, Osborne drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including research conducted for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which convinced him to make his lead character a girl. Having had two strong female characters in "Kung Fu Panda," Osborne assumed his body of work was a step in the right direction in terms of gender parity on screen, until the institute pointed out that there were 20 male characters in that film.
"It just knocked me over and made me rethink everything," Osborne said. "The book ['The Little Prince'] has all male characters except for the Rose. I was thinking about my daughter, Maddy, and also [Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki, who has female characters all the time."
Osborne also sought out scripts written by Orson Welles, who had planned to direct and star in an adaptation of "The Little Prince" as his follow-up to "Citizen Kane" but never did, and the animator drew design inspiration from films like Jacques Tati's "Playtime" and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."
Both the CG and stop-motion animation crews worked in Montreal, and embedded in the film nods to the book's origins — the writing on the pages of the neighbor's magical text, for instance, is in French.
"My hope was that the French audience would say 'Ah, it's French' and the American audience would look at it and say, 'Ah, it's messy handwriting,'" Osborne said.
Since "The Little Prince's" premiere at Cannes last year, Osborne has attended 12 premieres in 12 countries. In Japan, where the distributor sold the film as a mother-daughter story, many audiences assumed Osborne had designed the girl protagonist as Japanese. (Osborne said he didn't).
"Parents in Italy say, 'This is really about Italy, isn't it?'" Osborne said. "In China, they say, 'This is really about China, isn't it?' I never wanted people to think, 'Oh, an American made this movie.'"
On the strength of strong reviews and fan affection for the book, "The Little Prince" has so far grossed more than $97 million worldwide. In the U.S., where animation is often considered a children's medium, a release has proved trickier — Netflix picked up the film after Paramount abruptly dropped the domestic rights last spring.
Osborne said he sees the movie, ideally, as a dialogue between adults and children.