Movie Review: ‘Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’
For nearly a hundred years, The Prophet — Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran’s book of prose poems about life, love, and spirituality — has been a perennial bestseller and a pillar of pop philosophy and inspirational lit. Long before Tuesdays with Morrie or The Secret, there was The Prophet. Obviously, it has mass appeal, but lines like “To belittle, you have to be little” (ugh) or “Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror” (… what?) are not exactly the height, or even the middle section, of sophistication. Now, producer Salma Hayek and director Roger Allers have brought the book to life as an animated film. Much of the author’s words are transplanted from page to screen unchanged, so Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is still anchored by its banal roots. But the visual possibilities of animation introduce new possibilities for lyricism, and the movie sporadically takes full, breathtaking advantage of this.
It helps that Allers isn’t alone here. Joining him is a murderer’s row of international cartoonist talent: Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (“The Firebird Suite” from Fantasia 2000), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells), Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat), and Michal Socha. Each animator directed their own short segments of the film, bringing their unique visual sensibilities to them. The segments adapt selected poems from The Prophet (the Brizzis do “Freedom,” Plympton does “Food and Drink,” etc), while Allers directs the narrative which frames the poems, expanding on a similar device from the book.
That loosey-goosey framing story follows a celebrated poet (Liam Neeson) who’s just been released from prison after seven years. On his way to the ship that will take him home, the poet is constantly harangued by admiring townspeople who are eager for his advice, and he’s all too willing to drop everything to deliver strings of platitudes. Whenever he does so is when a guest director takes over, and that’s when the film shines.
The wisdom at the heart of these poems may be basic at best and questionable at worst, but the directors take them more as a springboard for their own imaginations than as gospel. At its heights, The Prophet is a kaleidoscopic sampling of some of the most interesting stuff that contemporary animation has to offer. It’s more valuable for introducing children to Plympton’s ultra-caricatured crayon figures or Moore’s dizzying geometric fractals than it is for dosing them with Gibran’s musings. Paley illustrates a poem about children with a mesmerizing sequence of humankind regenerating itself over and over. The Brizzis concoct an achingly resonant image of birds bound to a vast shapeshifting wire prison. Sfar imagines marriage as a late-night garden dance. Each work is totally distinct from all the others, and collectively, they make the movie worth visiting.
But there’s a vast disparity in quality between that overarching story and the individual vignettes. Allers — a Disney veteran who worked as an animator on many of the company’s films during the ’80s and ’90s, most notably co-directing The Lion King — conjures an almost caricaturist version of kid movie blandness here, mainly through the slapstick antics of various extraneous side characters. The solemn philosophizing is at serious odds with generic pratfalls and cute seagull sidekicks. Worst of all, the frame story looks truly ugly, rendered to look like 2-D animation in 3-D and thus resembling poorly-done cel-shaded video game cutscenes. Viewers will be impatiently tapping their toes through this, waiting to see what the next mini-segment will bring. It takes up more than half the overall running time and amounts to a weak summation of Gibran’s pet themes. It’s hard to believe it was necessary at all. The Prophet probably would have been better off as a straightforward anthology.
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