When director Mark Osborne approached Jeff Bridges about his bold vision for reviving "The Little Prince" in an animated film, the actor was leery. After all, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 novella is as well known for its myriad, often unfortunate, adaptations as it is for its mystical views on love and loss.
If you believe the Internet meme, Michael Jackson's signature moves can be traced to a 1974 live action musical adaptation of the book and Bob Fosse's performance as the Snake. Otherwise, "The Little Prince" as radio play, ballet, BBC opera, stage musical, Claymation short, graphic novel, video game and Japanese anime seemed to have exhausted all possibility.
But as Bridges tells it, Osborne had a killer pitch.
"He said it wasn't going to be this simple movie animating the beautiful drawings of the book, that it would be a story within a story," Bridges recalled during a recent call from his Santa Barbara home. "I said, 'Hmm.' He said, 'I'd like to show you something.' He pulls out this suitcase. It's the most incredible piece of art."
Osborne called it "the magic suitcase." Handmade by "Coraline" modeler Joe Schmidt, it looked like an artifact that the book's narrator, the Aviator, who discovers the Little Prince in a desert, himself might have left behind. Mysterious-looking rivets, gears, vents and metal plates gave the piece a mechanical feel, as if it might rumble to life and fly away on its own. B-612, the name of the Little Prince's asteroid, was stenciled in red on one side.
Inside, Schmidt had created a snapshot of Osborne's vision for the film. A constellation of tiny planets and stars lighted up on one side. A giant art book of illustrations filled the other. From somewhere deep inside the case, Osborne pulled out two large white circles that held slides that when placed up to each eye displayed 3-D images of stop-motion puppets. Then Osborne started flipping switches.
"What is essential is invisible to the eye," Osborne said as he worked, quoting the book.
In no time, a one-way mirror slid away to reveal a hidden chamber holding a collection of yellowed pages below. It was a mock-up of Saint-Exupéry's original manuscript, a key plot point in Osborne's film. Paramount Pictures releases it in the U.S. on March 18.
"It came to life for me," Bridges said. "I said, 'This is where the sensibility of this movie is coming from!'"
During the 51/2 years it took to make the film, that suitcase traveled the world, charming investors and artists alike, winning over composer Hans Zimmer as well as a stellar cast including Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Ricky Gervais and Benecio Del Toro.
"I had people in tears at the end of the pitch," Osborne said. "It was the manifestation of the story and of the danger of this ephemeral story not existing. It became this very emotional way to communicate to people."
A beloved story
"Le Petit Prince," with its watercolor illustrations and simple, clear prose, became one of the last century's most successful books. It's the story of a precocious boy who enchants a stranded pilot with his sad, allegorical tales of traveling the universe.
One of the first examples of modern magic realism, the novella is believed to have been inspired in part by Saint-Exupéry's own experiences as a pilot stranded in the Sahara Desert during a long-distance race. The author also flew with the Free French Air Forces during World War II and was revered for his nonfiction books on aviation. He disappeared on a mission over the Mediterranean a year after "The Little Prince" was published. That bit of mystery inspires Osborne's script as well.
Osborne, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 1998 stop-motion short "More," was about to get a second nod for 2008's "Kung Fu Panda" when he was approached to direct "The Little Prince." French producing partners Dimitri Rassam and Aton Soumache had success with an animated French TV series based on the novella and a good relationship with the author's estate. But Osborne had his misgivings about the offer.
"They asked, 'Do you want to make a big CG movie?'" Osborne said. "I said, 'No. You just can't. There's no way.' The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was an opportunity to make something maybe a little different than what they were expecting."
Osborne wanted to illustrate how the book could change the course of one's life, and he worked with screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti on the script.
"The more I talked about this idea to other artists, everybody felt the same way I did," said Osborne. "That you can't just take the book and make it into a movie. You're never going to fulfill what they have in their imaginations. The movie should be about celebrating that personal experience."
He made his hero a little girl after research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media revealed the gender disparity among characters in animated films. Played by "Interstellar's" 12-year-old Mackenzie Foy, she represents "the spirit of adulthood," he said.
"Reality" in the film is dull and uniform, depicted by the sleek, seamless CG animation. It was Osborne's attempt to create the future as Saint-Exupéry might have seen it.
The Little Prince's story within the story is told with a stop-motion so elegant that it's as if the watercolor illustrations of Saint-Exupéry's book had come to life. It was Osborne's way, he said, "to keep the poetry of the book alive."
Osborne added 40 years to the timeline of the book itself, imagining the Aviator as a bearded old kook with the sole overgrown yard in a neighborhood of stark, concrete buildings occupied by disapproving drones. As Osborne describes it, the story asks, "What if at age 46 when [Saint-Exupéry] finished the book and he brought it to the world, nobody understood it? What if it never got published?"
Stalwart fans of the book may be unsettled with the film's third act. Osborne takes the story — and the Little Prince — into surprising places. But Osborne said he didn't want to shy away from the book's darker themes of melancholy and loneliness. Besides, he added, the material itself demanded bold, unexpected choices.
Olivier d'Agay, the author's grand nephew and spokesman for the Saint-Exupery estate said in an email: "The movie is extremely faithful to the book. The story of the little girl, her friendship with the aviator, her conflict with her mother, [illustrate] the place of children today in a tough world of competition and solitude. It's why the two stories are really well linked. This is the originality and the genius of that movie: to show that the magic and the power of the book is still operating today."