The Little Prince
For quite some time now, the best commercial feature films to be released by the major studios have been animated. Not just Pixar, as everyone knows, but also Studio Ghibli, Aardman and most recently a resurgent Disney have been consistently releasing thoughtful, creative, and downright beautiful works of art – full of warmth, humanity and occasional profundity, they have a directness of focus that blockbusters made for ‘adults’ tend to elude. It is downright laughable that in this year’s Zootropolis we saw America’s schisms and particularly its racial identity issues explored with great sensitivity and intelligence, whilst in films apparently written for grown-ups such as last week’s Suicide Squad absolutely nothing was explored beyond Margot Robbie’s exposed cleavage and just how many CGI explosions they could cram into two hours. I am both encouraged and discouraged – we are urging our children to be more thoughtful, but our young adults to be more thoughtless. Still, there has always been terrible films being made for adults, whilst there has never been so many excellent films being made for children, our next generation of filmmakers, which overall should leave you with a cautious hope for the future of cinema.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella The Little Prince predated this golden age of kid’s culture by over half a century, released in France in 1943 when the country was facing one of the worst crises in its history, and offering a tender message of hope for its youth. In a war-torn, ravaged nation, where many would have witnessed the slaughter of loved ones, it is difficult to overestimate the sentimental impact of the book’s romantic notion of a Little Prince alive and well in the stars, even after his earthly body has been devoured by a snake. The narrative and the visual imagination, depicting the Prince’s journey across the universe from planet to planet, are of course important, but its immense popularity (it is one of the best-selling books of all time) can only be explained by the aching longing that oozes from every page, every sentence, every illustration: a longing, that is, to preserve the innocence of childhood long into adulthood and old age, and beyond that even into death.
That theme might sound familiar, and yes, it is unquestionable that The Little Prince is a decisive influence upon the works of modern animation studios, Pixar and Studio Ghibli in particular, which are frequently tinged with the worry of growing up and losing the sense of wonder and innate creativity of youth: transformation is a consistent fascination in their films and a manifestation of these fears, for example when the parents turn into pigs in Spirited Away or the toys are distorted into mutants in Toy Story: the horror of physical change is a deflection of the more hideous fears of deterioration, decay and death. So in its perceptiveness on these issues, it is rather surprising that it’s taken this long for a full-length animated film to be made of The Little Prince, but reassuring to see it finally done with such craft, such care.
Purists might be upset with the liberties that this version takes with the text: a framing narrative is introduced with a young girl befriending her elderly neighbour, who is the one that relates the famous story of the Prince as we know it. But I accept this additional setup, not just because the original is too slight to bear the weight of a feature film, but also because it gently serves to affirm The Little Prince’s central idea, which is that youthfulness is a state of mind and is not related to physical age. The old man is dishevelled, lives in squalid surroundings, and it is soon revealed that he is dying; the young girl is pristine, lives in a middle-class suburban haven, and has her whole life before her. But, after initial suspicions are overcome, they prove to be equally childlike, united by the stories of the Little Prince and his shining emblem of eternal youth; it provides them both with hope, love and an alternative to the tedium and cruelty of the ‘real’ world.
In order for this adaptation to capture the spirit of the book, it had to make the audience feel the same sense of wonder as its central characters – which it certainly does when the CGI scenes of the girl’s mundane life dissolve into gorgeous stop-motion sequences showing the Little Prince’s journey across space and time. The friends that he encounters along the way, from the rose that is the love of his life to a sage old fox, are remarkably well rendered and his bond with them undeniable. Meanwhile, in the English version, we are treated to a voice cast of great variety and delight: Ricky Gervais, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, and James Franco all throw their distinctive cadences into the mix, but it is Jeff Bridges who you will remember, as the old man whose faith in the importance of the imagination and human contact accompanies him all the way to his death bed.
The Little Prince is the perfect antidote to summer blockbuster fatigue: touching, wise, warm, and funny. It is absurd to me that such a film should be considered unworthy of cinematic release, ‘relegated’ to Netflix – are distributors really so scared of low-key, thoughtful films for children? Never mind, we should applaud Netflix for taking this ‘risk’, and the time, care and attention to detail that has gone into this adaptation.
Watch it here: The Little Prince (Netflix)
Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – Dinosaur Jr.
Far from being a great band, Dinosaur Jr. disappointed by never living up to the grunge movement that they helped to inspire. Yes, they were influential, popularising the use of feedback within classic pop/rock structures in their 80s heyday and deploying the loud-quiet-loud dynamics that were subsequently made famous by the Pixies and Nirvana. But they simply didn’t have the majesty or the beauty to match either of those iconic bands, nor the boundless creativity and intelligence of, say, Sonic Youth. Inconsistent and prone to dismal, speed metal indebted guitar freakouts, their primary auteur J Mascis never displayed the same inspired madness that characterises the genre’s greatest voices: Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus etc. He is the Salieri to their Mozart.
Which is not to say he’s not talented: his band can conjure up a thrilling, rumbling mass of electronic noise at their best, which in the first two tracks of Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not they certainly are. ‘Goin Down’ and especially ‘Tiny’, very much improved by the dog in its video (see below), thrill to the bone, the guitars focussed in their attack and a joyful spirit of abandon, reminiscent of the punk music that inspired them, evident in everything but Mascis’ voice. For it is Mascis’ vocals that have consistently let the band down throughout their lengthy career, straining to convey the misery of the lyrics and, worse, failing to offer any alternative to it through the solace that music should provide. When he complains about walking for miles in a lovelorn haze or being ‘Lost All Day’ on this album it is difficult to empathise because his voice so resists unpacking the irony in these operatically daft situations – something that Will Toledo, for example, in this year’s Teens of Denial did so well.
Mascis constantly grinds down the decent work put out by Dinosaur Jr.’s rhythm section with songs revolving around his own lengthy guitar solos, which are as characterless as his vocals, making the deathly mistake, so common in lesser bands, of promoting technical expertise over melodicism. Combined with an inadequate songwriting streak, which runs out of inspiration on just the third track, Mascis sucks all of the potential joy out of Give a Glimpse, something that secondary songwriter Lou Barlow (of Sebadoh fame) cannot rectify with his own two lacklustre efforts. ‘Wasted time’, Mascis bemoans on ‘Mirror’. Tell me about it.
Wildflower – The Avalanches
If anyone tries to argue with me that sampling in music is daylight robbery and not artistically valid, I point them in the direction of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…., and finally The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, which usually shuts them up. The first three are masterpieces of musical collaging, and if The Avalanches’ effort is not quite in the same league, it is nevertheless distinct from them: the others incorporate older music specifically into the hip-hop culture, with an emphasis on big beats and postmodern humour, whereas the hundreds of samples deployed on Since I Left You were moulded into lush pop songs that seemed polished and worked perfectly well as background music, without calling attention to their own construction in quite the same way (which is not to say that they weren’t intricately, meticulously crafted).
That album was their debut and an immediate critical smash, gifting sampling with a new credibility amongst the white middle class; amazingly, it has taken The Avalanches 16 years to release a sophomore effort, and even more amazingly this Australian outfit’s extended sabbatical has not dulled any of the sunny optimism of their sampledelic pop music. Wildflower is nostalgic for the 60s nostalgia of their first album, with nods to The Beach Boys and Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, songs with titles such as ‘Harmony’ and ‘Sunshine’, and a cover and title which references Wild Honey. The mood conjured is of the 60s not as it really was, but as we like to romanticise it: as an era of peace, love, understanding, and flower power. It has all of the utopian universalism of the 1967 live broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ across the world, with a variety of musical genres explored including calypso, disco, Big Band jazz, funk, and rock in a bid to bridge national and racial divides. This is very much in line with Since I Left You, which was a concept album on the theme of travelling around the world post-breakup, whilst having a multicultural party along the way.
It is possible to be sceptical of The Avalanches’ idealism and enjoy it at the same time – goodness knows there has been enough troubles in the world this year to allow for an hour’s worth of escapism, and Wildflowers satisfies that need in spades. But it also has a rich enough sonic palette to keep listeners actively involved, satisfyingly holding tedium at bay: you don’t have to be aware of the origins of each sample to be amazed at how fluently they are stitched together. Meanwhile, the use of indie artists and rappers performing over the top of their productions shows that The Avalanches have their eyes fixed on the future of popular music, rather than just simply wallowing in its retro glories. The old and the new are not always comfortable bedfellows, but Wildflowers just might convince you that they most certainly are the majority of the time.