The book The Little Prince is beautiful in its understatement and in the lightness of its metaphors. A child reads the book without fully comprehending the references of the metaphors, but still comes away with the intended (and familiar) sense that the adult world is nonsensical and a bit tragic. The tone of the book is somber and the ending is heartbreaking, no matter how you choose to interpret it.
Netflix’s The Little Prince strips away all of the charm and depth of its source material. The metaphors are belabored, over-explained to the audience, then weirdly extrapolated into a monstrous final act that shoehorns in a mishmash of half-baked deathist moralizing.
Deathism – the idea that death is okay, and even good – shows up in a lot of children’s movies. The cultural taboo around openly and concretely discussing human death means that children’s movies are often the primary source of wisdom that children receive regarding their own mortality and the mortality of their loved ones. Ever since Bambi, kids’ movies have been peppered with death. The intolerable pain and paralysis that tends to surround thoughts of death, especially in children, means that children are eager to swallow any intellectual package that promises to disempower the idea of death.
And here, Netflix’s The Little Prince performs a particularly odious intellectual bait-and-switch. The main character, the Little Girl, is forced to grapple with the mortality of her elderly mentor and friend, the Aviator, who is revealing to her the tale of the Prince who he met in the desert. Eventually, the Little Girl recoils in horror upon realizing that the Prince chose some form of death as a means of returning to his home.
In the book, it is never clear whether the Prince is actually a magical being who can genuinely expect that a snakebite will teleport him back to his home planet, or whether he is committing suicide in order to avert the pain of losing his Rose forever. I always had the sense that this duality was intentional, and reflected something about the uncertainties one faces in life. The Netflix adaptation, on the other hand, has no patience for sustaining ambiguous metaphors. According to the film, the snakebite did cause the Prince to become magically unfettered by gravity, and he tried to return home. However, he was then trapped in the soulless adult metaphor-world, but eventually freed by the Little Girl to return home to his Rose, who had died in his absence. But it is okay that she is dead, because the Prince once looked at a sunset with her.
Therefor, the Little Girl learns to be at peace with the imminent death of her friend the Aviator, because they have shared happy experiences together. This is, as far as I can tell, the entire moral lesson of the movie, being offered as a valid antidote to the suffering caused by the death of loved ones. The implication is that it is fine, it is not even a big deal that her friend will die, that his consciousness on Earth will end, that his life will end, that she will never see or speak to him again, that he will never see another sunrise … because she will retain memories of their time together.
I could point out how bizarrely solipsistic this is – the notion that the death of a friend is no different than if that friend permanently moved to Australia – but I will instead focus on the uselessness of this moral. Has any person watched his movie, or any of the other movies that peddle this message, and walked away with a lighter heart? Has any person ever found this message at all convincing?
Any argument that begins “Death is okay because … “ is doomed from the start because death is not okay. But the basic human inability to just sit with pain and discomfort causes us to strain for any means by which we can convince ourselves otherwise. “Death is okay because … “ becomes part of an ancient intellectual sport in which we strive to come up with, and disseminate, new and more convincing arguments “proving” that bad things are good, injustice is just, pain is a gift, and a loss is a gain.
I want to see fewer movies that teach children those particular intellectual gymnastics useless for anything except evading confrontations with reality. Sitting with and enduring loss and suffering is a skill that, tragically, must be cultivated by all sentient beings, and can only be learned through experience with loss. I find cultural approval of clever sophistry that allows one to evade this practice to be unconscionable.
What do I want to see, instead? I want to see more movies like Pixar’s Up.
Up is a difficult film to watch. The majority of adults I know find this film too painful to watch more than once, or at least sad enough that viewing it doesn’t sound pleasurable. I find myself in the interesting position of being essentially forced to watch it, repeatedly, because my kids love it. And this has enabled me to get over my initial aversion to Up, and to learn to love it deeply.
On an emotional level, the film Up opens with a short sequence in which a sweet, lovable girl is introduced, made real to us, and killed off.
Young Carl meets Young Ellie, who shows him her ambitious “Adventures I’m Going To Have” journal, and makes him swear to her that they will travel together to exotic Paradise Falls. They grow old together, and Carl tries to make good on his promise, but life intervenes. Just after he buys tickets to Paradise Falls, she falls ill. He brings her the old journal in the hospital, and we see that the “Adventures I’m Going To Have” section remains tragically blank.
The Ellie we know is a sweet little girl full of hopes and dreams, simple dreams of having children and traveling the world, who dies without ever achieving them. The movie is then about the sweet, lovable boy who loved her. On an emotional level, it doesn’t matter that the girl died of old age and the boy is now an old man.
(In fact, Carl worked his whole life selling balloons to children at a zoo. He never grew up; he was that kid his whole life, until his wife died and he was left alone, talking to a house.)
Many viewers never recover from this first sequence and are thus not receptive to the emotional message of the remainder of the film. The depiction of grief depicted in Up is unbelievably nuanced for what is nominally a children’s movie. No time is wasted with abstract dissimulation about death and loss. Carl’s grief is expressed through his obsession with bringing the balloon-powered house to Paradise Falls. The house represents Ellie – he calls the house Ellie – and he feels it is his duty to do this because he feels like he failed her in life.
The emotional climax of Up is completely without dialogue. In this scene, Carl has failed to rescue the giant bird, Kevin, from the clutches of the evil Charles Muntz, and the child Russell is furious that Carl has given up on rescuing her. Carl retreats into the mobile house and sits in his customary chair, beside Ellie’s empty chair, and shuts his eyes against it all.
Feeling now more than ever that he’s let everyone down, and literally surrounded by the absence of his wife, Carl opens Ellie’s old journal and notices that more photos have been added. He sees that, sometime before her death, Ellie has filled out the “Adventures I’m Going To Have” section with the visual story of their life together. Her life with Carl was her adventure. She does not feel robbed of the life she wanted. Carl did not let her down.
Carl is not okay with Ellie being gone. Death is not good. The loss of his wife is not, somehow, a metaphysical gift in disguise.
But he has to go on with his life anyway.
The film does not try to diminish his loss, but there are still people counting on him. And Ellie would have wanted him to be true to himself.
Children do absorb the moral lessons of the movies they watch. In fact, they absorb these lessons more completely than adults, because they do not have the critical faculties and the capacity for detachment that lets us consciously analyze what a movie is trying to say.
I don’t endorse shielding kids from movies with ill-conceived messages. Instead, I advocate expanding the variety of movies, books, and even music that they’re exposed to. Bad ideas should always be fought with good ideas, not with censorship.
I will probably show my kids The Little Prince. But I’m going to read them the book first – and I’m glad that they’re already well acquainted with Up.