Amazing how Hollywood dared to take on the task of adapting “kidult” tales in the 1970s, finding indifference at the box office in the process.
George Cukor took on “The Blue Bird,” an American-Russian venture that had its wings cut by critics in 1978. Producer David L. Wolper brought forth an imaginative take on Roald Dahl’s iconic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which found fame after its initial release in 1971. Or, how about Sidney Lumet’s gorgeously designed vision of Oz as an urban fantasia in “The Wiz,” that landed with a thud in 1978 when the Broadway smash was transformed into big budget lesson in EST? Somewhere in the middle, you will find Stanley Donen’s 1974 musical film THE LITTLE PRINCE.
Written by Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, THE LITTLE PRINCE endures as one of the most treasured books of the 20th century. A delicate fable of a young boy who lives alone on asteroid B-612, its fantastic vision has inspired various adaptations, from ballet to opera and, especially, film. An animated version was eschewed theatrical release and streamed on Netflix in 2016. However, it is the live-action musical version directed by Donen continues to orbit in some film circles.
Panned by critics during its release, THE LITTLE PRINCE is a real cinematic oddity. Featuring the last film score of the legendary duo Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Lowe (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”), Donen dared to craft an abstract, yet sweeping vision of the original novella with to erratic effect. Starring Richard Kiley as a pilot who encounters the Little Prince (newcomer Steven Warren) after his plane goes down in the desert. As the little boy who has fallen to earth, the two forge a friendship while the pilot attempts to repair his plane. He relegates the grown-up with tales of his space journeys, venturing to other planetoids, seeking answers about the meaning of life, love, war, and the pursuit of knowledge.
No one he meets seems to think he’s old enough to understand the answers, that he’s only a child. It isn’t until he meets a fox (Gene Wilder) that seeks to be tamed and a perfidious snake (the amazing Bob Fosse) that he starts to understand the truth about life and death. Before the Little Prince dies, he shares his knowledge with the pilot, bringing the man’s journey full circle. The pilot, realizing the boy was just a figment of his imagination, takes off anew, hearing the sound of the Little Prince’s laughter as gazes into the starry night.
Despite its luscious score, THE LITTLE PRINCE’s musical numbers fall curiously flat. Despite the efforts of such stage luminaries as Kiley (“Man of La Mancha”), dancer Donna McKechnie (“A Chorus Line”), and Clive Revill (“Oliver”), all working hard to make it work, the narrative sections are a lot more compelling. More, little Steven Warner’s performance is oddly wistful and distracting thanks to the Phyllis Diller wig plunked on his head. Worse, Warner at times feels swamped by the production, beautifully shot on location in Tunisia. Yet, moments occur when the film fires all cylinders, where Donen’s skill to capture motion and music feel beautifully realized. The highlight is Bob Fosse’s rendition of “A Snake in the Grass,” featuring his sinuous choreography. It is a mesmerizing piece of artistry, one that deserves a chance to be relished. (Word is this section hugely influenced the late Michael Jackson, best evidenced by his performance in “Billie Jean.”)
To be honest, viewing the film with a 2020 context will raise a few eyebrows, which is why it is important to leave any cancel culture sensibilities out of the mix. Yes it is flawed, but THE LITTLE PRINCE is fascinating in its attempt to bring Golden Age into the evolving universe of the 1970s. Lerner & Lowe did not have in common with the studio, opting out of the recording sessions. Donen would not reach the apex of his career that brought us “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Funny Face,” and “Charade.” The 1970s proved unkind to the director, marred by such high-profile failures as “Lucky Lady” with Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds in 1975 and the notorious sci-fi thriller “Saturn 3” with Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in 1980. You have to credit Donen for wanting to keep relevant as the industry changed with incredible speed.
Despite its hitting a few harsh chords, the message at its poignant end is one for the ages. We have a choice in how we see the world; that choice ultimately defines us. Sometimes it does take a child to lead us to that part of ourselves before we trade our innocence for weary experience. Its simplicity struck me as a fitting grace note, especially with what we witness on the daily of late. While THE LITTLE PRINCE may have struggled to unleash the imagination of its source material, it remains proof that even those films deemed failures can still offer something for an audience willing to appreciate its joys.
THE LITTLE PRINCE is now streaming on The Criterion Channel through October 31st.