By Jim Slotek
The best children’s literature is far from childish. Thinking back, the books that stayed with me were ones that communicated adult ideas. It may be why some of the darkest sensibilities (Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak) struck a chord with kids.
In the documentary Invisible Essence: The Little Prince, Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer (Unarmed Verses, Nurse.Fighter.Boy) lays his cards on the table and embraces his love of the complicated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s existential outsider-tale for children. Unbeknownst to most of us, The Little Prince is hardly a niche favourite. The story of an aviator who encounters an elegant alien child in the Sahara desert, full of curiosity and big thoughts, is said to be the most read book after the Bible – still selling millions of copies a year in 300 languages.
It is a dark, satirical allegory about humans, the ridiculous extent of our selfishness versus our capacity for good. And as Officer discovers in Invisible Essence when he takes his show on the road, children have no trouble absorbing its message. Most touching is his discovery of a seven-year-old blind Pakistani-Canadian boy, whose encounter with The Little Prince, via braille and audio-book clearly sets his mind racing.
Juggling narratives, Invisible Essence also tells Saint-Exupéry’s own fascinating story (that of an aimless young man from a pampered background, haunted by the deaths of his father and brother, who lived large and “discovered himself” as a desert pilot for the French airmail service Aeropostale), and fills the gaps with expert witness, including Saint-Exupery’s own nephew and great nephew, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sainte-Exupery biographer Stacy Schiff
Officer also makes good use of previous often-eccentric attempts to bring The Little Prince to life, including the live action 1974 film by the late Stanley Donen, a recent animated feature and Guillaume Côté’s 2016 National Ballet of Canada production.
There’s a lot to convey in this tale of a simple novella that affected the world, and Officer squeezes it all in to great effect. If you ever read The Little Prince, this doc will make you appreciate it more. If you never have, it should send you straight to the source.
Invisible Essence: The Little Prince. Written and directed by Charles Officer. Starring Olivier D’Agay, Adam Gopnik, Guillaume Côté. Opens Friday, March 8 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Charles Officer will be in attendance for a Q+A following the March 8 evening screening.