Invisible Essence: The Little Prince is a curious documentary about the beloved novella The Little Prince, a children’s book published by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943. Caveat: this reviewer has not read the book since childhood and has virtually no recollection of it.
The film chronicles the life of Saint-Exupery, and how his experiences (including childhood and marriage, as well as his time piloting for Aeropostale and his involvement in World War II) informed the narrative, characters, and overall philosophy of his novella – a story that is said to be the second-most read book worldwide only after the Bible – having been translated into over 180 languages, with more than an insane 80 million copies sold. The documentary features archive footage and audio of Saint-Exupery, as well as his colleagues, friends, relatives, and wife Consuelo. These are juxtaposed with interviews with various scholars and Saint-Exupery historians.
The film takes a while to pick up steam. At only 90 minutes it still feels a little long in the tooth for the first half. Much of that is down to the movie jumping between thought threads without providing a central thesis: the film takes its time in getting to the point.
Even when it does, it’s still a little convoluted. The documentary has so many disparate subjects that it can feel unfocused from time to time. It goes off on tangents, at times breaking down the narrative and dissecting its allegories (which, of course have innumerous interpretations), while examining the life of the author, and then juxtaposing these threads with the story of Sahil, an Iraqi-Canadian boy of about seven years old. He is vision-impaired and is being taught braille through The Little Prince by his social worker. This is the story thread that I was most locked onto. I was hoping that by the end of the film there would be some grand narrative/allegory/connection between Sahil and The Little Prince itself, but it wasn’t really there. Further, I found myself wanting more of Sahil’s story, and felt a little shortchanged by its conclusion.
I do feel like this is one of those documentaries where the audience will be much more invested if they are fans of the original story. Many passages of the book are presented (be it through clips of film adaptations, dance, interviewees reading the prose, etc.), but I did find myself a little disconnected as the source material was not familiar to me. Perhaps that is down to the film selecting specific phrases and moments to include, which, out of context, don’t fully express the book’s ideas to someone outside looking in. But of course, how could they?
Invisible Essence: The Little Prince has a number of moments that are very inspiring, and some fascinating existential observations. Those not familiar with the book will still likely get something out of it, but I believe fans will love it.