The Happy Prince

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Looking at a poignant classic short film for the Fairy Tale Blogathon.

This 1974 Canadian animated short film (25 minutes) was produced by Potterton Productions, and voiced by Christopher Plummer, and Glynis Johns. The Happy Prince was an 1888 work by Oscar Wilde included in his book of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (sometimes called and Other Tales).

A gilded statue of “The Prince” towers over the city, high on a pedestal both literal and figurative, admired by all as the most gorgeous object in all Christendom. As winter approaches, the swallows gather to fly south to Egypt. One silly little swallow dallies a bit by a pond and gets left behind. By the time he gets started toward Egypt, he flies alone, and stops one night at the city to rest by the feet of the Prince’s statue. A teardrop falls on the swallow’s head. When he flies up closer to investigate the statue introduces himself as “the Happy Prince” and then explains why someone happy would weep. He once lived in carefree happiness and luxury, and never saw or cared about the more difficult struggles in life. Now that he’s a statue mounted high above the city, he sees every type of misery, suffering and poverty, and though he is now even more defined by his beauty and only has a heart of lead inside, he feels more compassion than he ever did while he was alive. He asks the swallow to delay his flight south in order to fly around town, and bring news of any misery he witnesses. The Prince then asks the swallow to take apart his statue’s outer shell bit by bit– peel all the gold leaf from his body, pluck all the precious gems from his eyes and the hilt of his sword–and instructs him to give these valuable parts of him to those in need. The swallow carries out the Prince’s wishes, flying the bits around town to grateful recipients, until nothing is left on the statue of material value. Night after night the swallow promises to stay “only one night longer,” and soon winter has set in, and it’s to late to fly south. The swallow says goodbye to the Prince and drops dead at his feet.

“At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.”

The VIPs of the city see only a dead bird and a degraded statue which no longer glitters: “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.” So they tear the Prince down and toss him into a furnace. But the most curious thing happens; that cracked leaden heart will not melt in the fire. They chuck it on the trash heap beside the dead swallow. When God asks his angel to bring him the most precious things in that city, the angel returns with the heart and the bird and they ascend to Heaven.

“‘You have rightly chosen,’ said God, ‘for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.'”

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As fairy tales go this is an absolute essential, guaranteed to deeply move and stick with you forever. The morals found here are numerous, the chief one being the importance of individual acts of mercy, charity, self-sacrifice and self-discipline in this life to be worthy of the rewards in the next. It also shows how life is made of duty and obligation, not just pleasure and hedonism, that what is marvelous on the outside is not necessarily good, that every life has worth, especially those that seem inconvenient, that the soul requires a faith in things beyond rationalism and mathematics, and that a pure heart is an undying thing. This is an essential animated film as well, a faithful, verbatim adaptation with perfect voice work and a cute, endearing style, plus memorable music. I recall The Happy Prince being aired here on TV every Christmas, but I could hear it whenever I wanted because my parents got me the LP recording of the entire film (pictured below). I listened to this record until I knew every word and still treasure it. The Selfish Giant, another story from the same collection, also made into a movie by Potterton Productions. Gerald Potterton also worked on Heavy Metal and Yellow Submarine.

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The Happy Prince animated short is pretty easily found on youtube (there’s your link to one full version, and there’s also a great reading of it by Stephen Fry you can search for). Please watch it if you haven’t already, or if you have many times like me; even if you’re grown up, and even if you have a heart made of lead, it’s sure to crack after hearing the glorious fairy tale of the faithful swallow and the giving prince.

This post is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently– click here to see all the other fine tales being discussed.

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15 thoughts on “The Happy Prince”

  1. Kristina, THE HAPPY PRINCE always moved me, and I’m glad you chose this Oscar Wilde story. Great choice, and warmest wishes to you and yours, my friend!

  2. This does sound quite moving. I can’t believe I was starting to get a little emotional just reading your review. Thanks for the recommendation! I must see this.

    1. I needed kleenex just to write the plot sum, believe me. Definitely check it out and have a tissue box handy. Thank you for reading.

    1. It’s one of those things that when you do see it again, it snaps you right back to childhood, at least it did for me. Thanks for reading.

      1. To be honest, I don’t think I ever saw it in childhood. I came across when working on the movie entries for The Encylopedia of Fantasy in the 1990s. I can’t now remember why I watched it, to be honest, because the book doesn’t have an entry on it. Hm. Maybe it was cut for space . . .

    1. Thanks so much, it amazed me how much I knew by heart still, after not hearing or seeing it for so many years! Those things stick with you.

  3. I was just thinking that I couldn’t imagine Christopher Plummer voicing an animated character, but then I realised it was a Wilde adaptation and it all made much more sense! Off to watch this on YouTube now! (PS – I’ve been told I have a heart of lead, so I’ll be putting your sob-o-meter to the test 😉 )

  4. “I needed kleenex just to write the plot sum, believe me. Definitely check it out and have a tissue box handy. ” And your fine essay brought tears to my eyes. Oscar Wilde always professed to be a cynic, but he had a great heart. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

    1. Thanks so much for reading, It’s true about Wilde. How great it was to go from this as a kid to Dorian Gray and everything else.

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