The Little Prince (1974) [Review]

the little prince movie 1974

If you were an elementary school student in the 1970s, your school library probably contained a copy of The Little Prince. Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French nobleman, pilot, and adventurer, and published in 1943, it has since become an oddball but revered children’s classic, standing beside The Phantom Tollbooth, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Charlotte’s Web. All of these books combine the mundane with the fantastic, serving as allegories for the adults and bizarre life lessons for children. Middle school fantasies like that don’t seem to be written too much anymore. Sure, we have the likes of Lemony Snicket and Rick Riordan, but they’re more satirical and slapstick. Books written before the 1970s were more quirky, and perhaps more subversive. They made both child and adult challenge their way of looking at the world.

The Little Prince, if you aren’t familiar with it, is about a nameless aviator who crashes his plane in the desert. There he meets a small child who tells him he is from a tiny planetoid where there is barely enough room to walk around. The child, the Little Prince of the book, tells the Pilot his story: he grows a sentient rose bush, who, though she loves him, proves cranky and problematic; so he sets off to explore the rest of the universe. On other tiny worlds he learns some farcical life lessons from The General, The Historian, The Accountant, and more; on Earth he encounters a snake and fox who impart more lessons. There’s a bit about a drawing that could be an elephant-eating snake or a hat, as sketched by the pilot, but the two mainly talk. In the end, the Pilot fixes his plane but the child disappears.

(Taken psychologically, the encounter could be a manifestation of extra party syndrome, where people in dire straits dream up a companion who keeps them sane and/or comforts them in dire circumstances.)

Book met Hollywood in 1973, when it was adapted as a musical by the Broadway team of Lerner and Loewe who had written the musicals Camelot and My Fair Lady. It seemed to be a sure hit in a time of lively kid-oriented musicals like Oliver, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday Morning TV shows like H. R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos, both of which featured original songs and elaborate musical numbers. But the result fell short.

Never heard of it? Neither did I, until I watched it for myself a few weeks ago.

The musical had some things going for it. There was a nifty opening number where an English garden party crowd mock the Pilot’s childhood hat/serpent drawing that promised a lot of fun. I’m not a big Lerner and Lowe fan, having only seen Camelot (in movie form) but the number was playful and promised more to come.

That wasn’t the case, however. The next number shows us the now-adult Pilot flying a biplane doing aerial stunts as he sings, full-throatedly, of the joy of flying in that old-fashioned movie musical way that is more from the 1950s than the early 1970s musical world of Jesus Christ Superstar and Cabaret. It came across as, well, silly. While he’s singing, the plane is obviously fake, with the wind fluttering his hair and scarf coming from a fan; yet it’s interspersed with shots of a real plane doing dives, corkscrews, and barrel rolls. The two did not connect together smoothly. Richard Kiley was perfectly good in the role, yet if the camera panned around to merely suggest a corkscrew or a steep bank, instead of using stock footage of a stunt plane, it would have been a lot better.

The disparity became worse after he crashes in the desert. Scenes of the real Sahara in Libya were intercut with studio mockups, especially for night shots, with an obvious wooden stand-in for the real plane. It wasn’t fun to watch. I kept wondering how much water the poor actors and production crew were getting in the heat.

Things get better when the Prince, played by six-year-old Steven Warner, comes into the picture. He was surprisingly good in the role. Granted, all he had to do was stand there and speak, with the lines likely overdubbed later, but he projected the gravitas of an otherworldly being in the shape of a child very well. He was even outfitted correctly in the Prince’s military coat as it appeared in Saint-Exupéry’s original illustrations. A blonde, tousled David Bowie inspired wig completed his cartoonlike look. He and the Pilot relate in a believable way, with the Pilot gentle and bemused as if realizing he’s a sort of hallucination and gamely playing along with it. In some back shots, I thought it likely they used a little person outfitted in the same wig and coat, perhaps to save stress on the child in the desert heat which looked all too real.

The adventures followed those of the book, with the Rose represented by a petulant Donna McKechnie rolling around inside a rose blossom in an uncomfortably kittenish way, considering she was relating to a child. The other two non-human characters, the Fox and the Snake, were portrayed by Gene Wilder and choreographer Bob Fosse. I think this helped the movie rather than hurt it, as special effects in those days were not up to recreating animal characters, plus it allowed the characters to sing and dance.

Scenes of the Prince walking around his tiny planetoid were aided by a revolving camera and I have to wonder if, decades later, it inspired director Michael Gondry in creating the visuals for Bjork’s breakout music video Human Behavior. The other planets the Prince visits had the same puppet-theater quality, equally charming and sinister. Some of the dwellers he meets indulge in too much grimacing and eye-twitching for a kids’ movie, in my opinion, especially Victor Spinetti of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour fame as a deranged Historian. The Prince travels to these places by holding on to a bar pulled by a flock of badly animated birds, easily the worst special effect of the film.

After a disquieting interlude where the Pilot and Prince trek for what seems like ages through the harsh desert to find water, the Prince tells of his other adventures. When he first lands on Earth he encounters the Snake who tells him of mortality and evil. He is played by Bob Fosse, who does an extended dance scene in his bump and grind style complete with cane and bowler hat. In a second case of music video homage, it may have inspired Michael Jackson’s dancing in the video for his 1983 hit Billy Jean. Fosse’s acting, though, is not on par with his dancing —  he merely draws out his S’s to portray squamine sleaziness, which is really not very creative, and his bald noggin and Vegas sunglasses are distracting.

The Fox comes across better, portrayed by idiosyncratic Gene Wilder in a russet-colored suit, shyly hiding behind trees and emerging like a wood sprite. He teaches the lessons of taming and love to the Prince. His performance here seems like a dry run for his role in the later, and much better, Charlie and the Chocolate factory.

The movie winds up with the Prince allowing himself to be bitten by the snake, and dying. I didn’t understand that part, and likely didn’t when I first read the book as a child, and so forgotten it. But his body disappears and the Pilot questions whether he really existed at all, until he hears the boy’s laughter tinkling from the sky.

Overall the movie contained some enjoyable parts for a fan of the book and it was interesting for me to revisit it. But I can see why it wasn’t a hit. Except for the first one, I couldn’t remember any of the songs, they just didn’t stick in my head. A few scenes gave me secondhand embarrassment, like the Pilot and Prince cavorting together in an oasis that bordered on pedophilia. (Plus, they left it with far too little water for their needs.) It had a lot of questionable bits that wouldn’t fly today, and a lot of overly mawkish bits that wouldn’t fly today either. But as a period piece it was interesting.

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