In 1974, Paramount Studios released a film of the unfilmable: The Little Prince. Not satisfied to face the challenge of filming on location in the Tunisian desert, and undaunted by the complex allegorical structure of Antoine de St. Exupery’s plaintive book on the death of childhood, they added several levels of difficulty by (hold your breath), turning it into a musical. Recruiting Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for book and song, the team that brought the world My Fair Lady and Camelot, along with Brigadoon and countless other stage classics, they intended a literate and bold production, with European styling, rounded out by some startling American cast members: genius choreographer Bob Fosse and the late, great Gene Wilder.

Figure 1: Steven Warner (The Little Prince) and Richard Kiley (The Pilot) sit beneath a paper-like moon

For those unfamiliar with this classic of French literature (and who didn’t have to read it in 6th grade French class), the book’s spare story involves the interactions between a crashed pilot and a mysterious and strange little boy, set amidst the Saharan Desert. As the pilot repairs his craft, he learns of the boys journey through space and his interactions with odd characters both in the stars and here on Earth, including his interactions with a fox and his fateful encounter with a snake. That’s it.

Figure 2: Pulled straight from the pages of St. Exupery, the pilot’s spare drawings are rendered throughout.

The level of ambition in the movie is on display everywhere. Surreal sequences show the Little Prince (charmingly played by the long-forgotten Steven Warner), pacing around his tiny asteroid. Thoughtful exchanges straight from the novel are repeated verbatim under a yawning Saharan sky. Complex rhythms are established between songs and dialogue. Bob Fosse dances the snake.

This is clearly the kind of “big imagination” effort that is almost unheard of now. And it was all done, of course, with nothing in the way of digital animation. Fish eye lenses are used repeatedly to warp space. The stages of Elstree Studios in England were used to create complex planetoid sphere sets. Special effects wizard John Richardson pulled all of this off, honing his craft for later work that would include Aliens and several Harry Potter films. The loving attention to detail is truly transportive. Moving seemlesly between highly stylized studio settings and broad desert vistas, halfway between a self-conscious stage show and a David Lean epic, the look and feel of this movie is like nothing I have ever seen before or since.

Figure 3: Graham Crowden (The General) expounds on the glories of war on his tiny sphere; each planet is crafted as a navigable sphere

The human interactions in this open landscape are equally arresting. Richard Kiley’s pilot is by turns frustrated with his extraterrestrial visitor and deeply attached to him. Gene Wilder’s charming fox wins over the boy in a short sequence that is among the most moving I have seen in a kid’s movie. Bob Fosse is funny and scary. The scattered logics of the astronomer, king, general and historian are perfect, as if pulled straight from Alice in Wonderland. While the rose (Donna McKechnie) is maybe a little too sultry (and hints at Exupery’s mild sexism), her dialogue with the Little Prince are filled with the portent of real relationships.

Figure 4: Gene Wilder’s performance as the Fox is second only to his Willy Wonka

Is this kid’s stuff? Sure, and in the best way. The themes of the book and the movie are timeless and worthy of the attention of any little person. They stress the notions of friendship, trust, and most of all, imagination. That the film ends with the quasi-death of a child is a fact that would make many parents a little shy to show the movie to their kids. Not me. The magic of the story is to make us think about life and death, and a contemporary seven year old is as ready to contemplate these things as I was in 1974.

Figure 5: “Please sir, will you draw me a sheep?”

The problem lies elsewhere. Remarkably, despite the wealth of talent arranged to pull off a musical, it is the music that kills the movie. The songs are forgettable, poorly-timed and often fall only at the very edge of the themes being addressed in the dialogue.  Though the numbers are mercifully short, the miserable songs derail the operation, halting the often funny and affecting sequences by inserting a pointless tune (with the exception of Bob Fosse’s wonderfully creepy dance scene), always right at a moment of high drama. The music is quite simply insufferable. I think I recall thinking that at the age of seven, actually, and both then now I had a taste for musicals (I’ll be reviewing a few more here).

So what went wrong? Did the genius of Lerner and Loewe finally somehow run out of steam by this time? Did they mail it in?

I think the problem goes deeper than that. There is a mismatch from the outset, in style, tone, and breadth of vision, between the wild and exotic landscapes with their profound philosophical themes, and the execution of these show tunes. They just fall flat, suddenly reminding the viewer that they are not in the desert, and instead in a darkened room. The error is compounded by the often-soaring delivery that Kiley brings to his numbers, his mouth wide-open, holding long emotional, endlessly hanging notes. These seem to come straight from the mouth of Camelot’s King Arthur and not those of St. Exupery’s humble pilot, whose real-life survival adventure in the Saharan Desert (read Wind, Sand and Stars if you want to get a sense of this remarkable man), is one that suggests humility and whimsy.

This isn’t to say that the movie shouldn’t have been made as a musical. It simply needed to be a better one.

Chances that Alexander will enjoy this film: Fair/Good.