Well-remembered French classic make a big splash in China

A screen capture from film The Little Prince. Photo: China Daily

One of the most translated novellas globally, The Little Prince has reportedly found its way into 253 languages and dialects, selling as many as 200 million copies, but has rarely been made into a film.

Now, around seven decades after the birth of the 1943 French classic, an American director has found a way to recreate the fantasy world of the title role and his friends on the big screen, making a big splash in China.

The $77.5-million movie of the same title, one of the most expensive French films of all time, opened in Chinese mainland theaters on Oct 16.

Resonant with nostalgia and exquisite imagery, The Little Prince has won critical acclaim from the country's major film-review sites, scoring 8.7 points out of 10 on Douban.com and 8.1 on Mtime.com. Commentators call the movie a touching tale of a universal value-maintaining a sincere and true heart.

China has more than 70 translated versions of the novella, with the first published in World Literature magazine in 1979. The story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the legendary French pilot and author, is embedded in the collective memory of several generations, and Chinese fans are looking to see if the cinematic adaptation is close to the original.

Such faithfulness was a challenge from the start for New Jersey-born director Mark Osborne, known for his Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda.

"I really wanted to make an animation reflecting the experience that the book can give you. The adaptation of the large story is very faithful given all our intentions to respect the original ideas and themes," Osborne tells China Daily.

Following two timelines, the 108-minute film weaves the prince's poetic tale into a modern story, which revolves around a studious teenager's struggle and compromises with her pushy mother.

Bored by her tight lecture schedule, the young girl befriends an aging pilot next door and becomes fascinated by his story of the little prince and the asteroids.

The first half mainly narrates the book's tale, while the latter half centers on the girl's adventure in a populated planet exclusively for adults to rescue the prince, whom the girl believes will save the dying pilot.

Osborne says the crew paid a visit to the copyright holders of The Little Prince.

"I didn't want to make a film that they didn't support ... and I was very nervous to present my idea to them," the auteur says.

After the owners reacted with applause, laughter and even tears, Osborne took nearly six years to prepare and shoot the film, which he describes as "a full immersion".

"Even when I was sleeping, I was still thinking about it, or dreaming about the scenarios," he says.

The 45-year-old director's earliest connection to the novel goes back to nearly 25 years ago, when his girlfriend sent a copy to him as gift.

Many years later, while Osborne was packing personal items in boxes, he discovered a letter that she wrote to him in those early days, when he decided to relocate from New York to California for further studies in animation.

"I love you. We'll be always together even when we're apart," the woman who is now his wife quoted from The Little Prince.

"It was the first quote coming back to me after many years, and I still remember how powerful it was when I read the story," says Osborne.

Preferring to define himself as an "experimental director", the American auteur refuses to classify himself as a Hollywood filmmaker.

Osborne says he doesn't deliver a stereotyped "happy ending" in The Little Prince, the formula Hollywood productions usually follow.

"I believe I was doing something universal," he says, "speaking to human beings".

The movie tries fresh explorations both in the terms of philosophy and technology. It combines stop-motion characters, for the original prince part, and computer-generated imagery, for the modern girl.

The movie had its global premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, a tribute to its homeland.

Two and a half months after its general global release, China is the first country in the world to see the film in two versions-in Chinese and English.

With a glittering voiceover cast, the Chinese version features around 10 celebrities, such as veteran actor Huang Bo, box-office favorite Huang Lei and award-winning actress Yuan Quan.

Huang Lei, who voices the movie together with his 9-year-old daughter, says the movie is like a childhood dream which is lost by most adults in this stressed-out society.

"The most touching part is that every one of us was a good-natured kid like the little prince, and it's a pity that this good characteristic goes away as time flies," he says.

For Li Jihong, one of the most critically acclaimed Chinese interpreters of the book, The Little Prince is not only a fairy tale for children, but a remarkable existential work, which reminds of people to follow their hearts amid the mundane chaos.

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