Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” became a global phenomenon for good reason: It reminds us just how strange the “grown up” world is while articulating simple truths about friendship, love, and distance.
The Paramount adaptation, released last year and now streaming on Netflix, opens on a little girl whose mother is committed to grooming her into the ideal grown-up. When The Little Girl’s over-drilled response botches her private school interview, her mother moves them into the school’s must-accept neighborhood. A single parent, she can afford their new home due to its proximity to a neighbor’s sprightly junkyard, an affront to the suburb’s monochromatic aesthetic. While her mother is at work, The Little Girl focuses on her studies until she meets The Aviator, the eccentric old man next door. The two become friends as The Aviator tells her the baffling story of crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert and meeting The Little Prince.
The film is a dose of optimism that more or less sticks to the book, though timely originality lies in The Little Girl’s position as protagonist and the premise of her relationship with her mother. The book’s cast is almost entirely male: the Prince, the narrator/Aviator, the six people the Prince runs into as he explores. The only female character we encounter from the book is the Little Prince’s beloved Rose: a symbol of beauty, fragile and petulant.
The Little Girl is both just what we need and almost too well cast. On the one hand, she’s just a kid who happens to be a girl, a regimented child starving for friends and play. A brunette with brown eyes, she is tidy and slim with enough curves to suggest a “normal” body—like her mother, the picture of respectable womanhood: white, hair in a bun, pearl studs, flats. A successful single mom, she believes in planning and hard work. Both characters are believable but pat images of serious femininity, just like the cookie-cutter world the film critiques.
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And yet, the mother-daughter dynamic is where the feminism of the film gets real: The single mom wants her daughter to be self-sufficient because, as she tells her early on, “You’re going to be all alone out there. All alone.”
The sadness underpinning the mother’s drive to empower her daughter is a surprisingly honest dip into mature themes. The father’s absence is clear. He sends The Little Girl birthday snow globes, each containing gray skyscrapers. She shelves them with knick-knacks from The Aviator—spots of color in her drab, ordered room.
The Little Girl is no rose looking for a Prince, no princess waiting for matrimonial sunsets. Yet her mother’s pragmatic life plan, while refreshing in its agency, is imbued with gendered questions of “having it all”—work or love, fun or security. It seems that the achievement motive would be different for The Little Boy. Loneliness passing from mother to daughter reflects the modernity of the original text while tangling with current sociology, and though accuracy is gratifying, depiction reinforces such models.
The mother’s suit eventually softens into a fuzzy green sweater. Tendrils of hair fall around her face as she learns the importance of having fun with The Little Girl. But the mother’s fun is contingent on her daughter. Is it too much to want non-child-related evidence of this character’s personhood? The central message of “The Little Prince” is that only the heart can see what is essential in the world. Scenes of The Little Girl’s mom having fun as a person beyond work and parenting would have modeled possibilities of “growing up” for kids of all ages. There is much to love and more to ask of “The Little Prince” and our cultural tropes, but as The Little Prince put it, “I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”
Zsalto is a Hungarian illustrator/biologist living in California. She is an avid hiker, and nature is her greatest source of inspiration. She works with ink and watercolors to produce narrative illustrations. zsalto.com