Should we consider Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet kids’ fare? The default categorization for any animated movie with a child protagonist is “children’s film,” but if it’s easy to picture a theater full of tykes getting swept up in this movie’s gorgeous imagery, it’s equally as difficult to imagine them nodding along with its philosophical apothegms. Maybe it’s stodgy to presume that cartoons are inherently childish, or that an audience of young’ns won’t take away anything from a cartoon based on the great Lebanese author’s book of prose poetry. Then again, the lessons of life, love, and the interconnectivity of humans and nature taught in Gibran’s iconic tome don’t neatly translate into cinema, either.
If Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet doesn’t succeed as a fleshed-out fable, though, it’s at least able to convey the text’s spiritual core through a veritable smorgasbord of animated aesthetics. Gibran’s musings are varied and numerous, after all: Responding to his diversity of ideas by gathering a diverse collective of filmmakers to articulate those ideas makes an obvious sort of sense. Thus, Salma Hayek, pulling double duty here as both a voice actor and producer, has brought Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet to fruition by calling in a truckload of talented animators under her banner: Roger Allers, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Bill Plympton, Nina Paley, Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, Joann Sfar, Michel Soka, Joan C. Gratz and Tomm Moore.
Allers plays the foreman to Hayek’s architect, contributing the wraparound narrative that houses the contributions of his peers and which sculpts Gibran’s loosely-plotted writing into an actual story. In The Prophet, the poet Almustafa leaves the city of Orphalese to return to his homeland after living abroad for 12 years. Before he does, the whole dang citizenry, including the seeress Almitra, comes out to bid him farewell, and the goodbye turns into a guru session as Almustafa spouts verses about every topic imaginable, from marriage, to work, to eating and drinking, to life and death. In Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Almustafa is just Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a political dissident kept imprisoned on the outskirts of Orphalese, and Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the young, mute, headstrong daughter of his housekeeper, Kamila (Hayek).
Mustafa is on his way out of town, too, but this time by the machinations of a local nefarious Sergeant (Alfred Molina), who has grimmer designs in mind for our hero-bard. So the film ends up being about Almitra’s efforts to rescue the ill-fated Mustafa, though along their journey he repeatedly stops to speechify about this subject or the other as their circumstances dictate. Basically, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is an elaborate excuse to get Neeson to read Gibran’s essays in his trademark gravelly burr. Movies have been made for worse reasons than that, but that doesn’t justify Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s approximation at storytelling. The results read like Allers and co. trying on Gibran’s clothes and finding that they’re a baggy fit.
At a mere 80 minutes, the film feels gaunt. Ostensibly, the slim thread by which its drama hangs is intended to honor Gibran’s source material, but if you would spin conflict out of partial cloth to prop up The Prophet’s axiomatic tenor as narrative, why wouldn’t you just spin it out of whole cloth instead? There’s inevitability here, which is fine, but that imminence threatens to suck the air out of the viewing experience. We come dangerously close to watching just to watch, rather than to engage. Gibran’s words are just as affecting to the ear as to the eye, but there’s very little substance present on the screen to properly weigh them. That’s where Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s stunning array of animation techniques come in.
As Mustafa takes every opportunity available to sermonize, the frame gives way to visual digressions as Neeson’s voice rumbles in the background: dances between lovers alternately portrayed through rigid order and expressive fluidity; impasto tone-poems hailing the worth of labor; ink-washed paintings about cycles of life; unrefined crayon chicken-scratches depicting the process consumption. Allers, meanwhile, brings a gentle, assured touch to his own efforts, showing his stripes as a staunch Disney veteran. The combined approaches impart such dazzling beauty upon Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’s presentation that they roundly validate the marriage of Gibran to the movies—its poetic abstractions really are quite breathtaking, and the restraint shown in sticking to a minimalist blueprint is admirable. But for everything the film’s component parts get individually right, they add up to a disjointed whole—kids’ movie or not.
Directors: Roger Allers, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Bill Plympton, Nina Paley, Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, Joann Sfar, Michel Soka, Joan C. Gratz, and Tomm Moore
Writers: Roger Allers
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, Alfred Molina, Frank Langella
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.