‘The Little Prince’
Director:
Mark Osborne
Voices of: Mackenzie Foy, Jeff Bridges
Rating: PG
4 (out of 5) Globes

No matter how often people shake their fists at Hollywood and its lack of original ideas, there’s a noble side to reboots and remakes: They keep the classics, and the past, alive. Sometimes you can see the strain to modernize an old text, especially if the times have dramatically changed. Watching this summer’s “The Legend of Tarzan” is to see adaptors struggle to neuter a product born of colonialism, racism and fear of otherness. You wonder why they bothered at all, but at the same you fear a generation could grow up unaware of a major historical landmark.

The new animated film of “The Little Prince” is a different story. It’s part-adaptation, part fan-fiction, part update. But it doesn’t forsake the original. Technically it includes all of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 novella. His children’s book for adults tells of a pilot who happens upon a mysterious child from another world, who regales him with his visits to other planets, each one an absurdist version of our own. It’s just buried in a film that interrogates the original, but not because it feels it’s dated. (Though it’s certainly too slim for a 106-minute movie.) It repurposes the book, asking what it says about 2016 and builds upon it, creating a work of adaptation that gets the original but does so much more.

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For one thing, its hero is no longer only The Aviator (voice of Jeff Bridges) or the star child he finds (Riley Osborne). There’s also the one known as The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy), a bright young girl whose single mom (Rachel McAdams) is adamant about her getting into a prestigious academy. She means well, but she’s plotted her entire life down to the second. To the rescue comes the Aviator, now the crazy old man next door, whose dilapidated, filthy house stands out in a suburb of identical, rectangular box homes in a neighborhood that resembles a grid inside a microchip. He tells The Little Girl about his story, and thus about the Little Prince’s story, whose adventures introduced him to kindly creatures, like a talking, friendly fox (James Franco), but also a planet soon to be taken over by workaholic businessmen.

De Saint-Exupery’s original was a story within a story, and the new film, by “Kung Fu Panda” director Mark Osborne, is a story within a story within a story that eventually adds an entire new adventure in its final stretch. (It eventually becomes “Hook,” but good.) It’s creative and shape-shifting: The modern day is told in the sterile form of modern computer animation, while the sections covering the original text come to us in soothingly rough stop-motion. It’s an original way to tackle a famous work, but it also explores why it’s still relevant without damaging it. The book was part-satire, part-lament of an adult on losing the innocence and wonder of childhood. Making a film about it now means addressing an era of helicopter parenting, when children are over-protected, their lives hypercurated by adults afraid their kids make the same mistakes they did.

Perhaps it wasn’t wise to give The Little Girl a type-A single mom, that regressive stereotype that plays into patriarchal fears of what would happen when the other gender takes over. Whatever it’s worth, the mother is more empathetic than hissable — a tragic figure who’s conformed to the fears of the day. The movie’s too lovely and heartbreaking to be cruel anyway, and it makes sure to make the real bad guys a far-off world of business-minded men, whose cog-like empire has no room for women. And it brings a stuffy school requirement to the screen in a way that honors the original while giving it new life. As such, it makes sure history doesn’t die.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge