A whole bunch of talent, in service of a good deal of mumbo jumbo.
This isn’t a swipe at Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a 1923 collection of poetic essays that I haven’t read. But it does apply to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a series of vignettes based on that book and directed by a number of the world’s finest working animators.
Roger Allers, a co-director on The Lion King, guides the project as writer and primary director, and indeed the framing device he’s adapted from the book has the feel of subpar Disney (heavy on emotion, slapstick and easy uplift). On an island nation, an imprisoned poet named Mustafa is offered freedom, as long as he agrees to deny the anti-authoritarian writings that landed him in jail. As Mustafa weighs his decision, he shares his thoughts on life – in the form of Gibran’s words – with his guards, various villagers and a little girl who, since the death of her father, has refused to speak.
The overarching narrative is on an island of its own: too facile for adults, too vague for children. This being rated PG, the latter is the larger problem. The political situation is taken as a given, as if most kids inherently understand what something like extradition means, and the cultural details are either at odds or undernourished. The setting and music are stereotypically Middle Eastern, while the references and accents are all over the place. I guess that’s what you get when your voice cast includes Liam Neeson (as Mustafa), John Krasinski (as a guard), Quvenzhane Wallis (as the little girl) and Salma Hayek (as her mother).
The setting and music are stereotypically Middle Eastern, while the references and accents are all over the place.
Perhaps some of this makes sense, as by all accounts Gibran was a multicultural exile himself. Born in what is now Lebanon and raised as a Catholic, he was also influenced by theosophy when the family moved to the United States. As represented by The Prophet, however, this all amounts to little more than syncretist gibberish. “You shall be together even in the silent memory of God.” “Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” With no context for these ideas outside of them being uttered by the insufferably saintly Mustafa, they feel like particularly well-designed inspirational posters.
Speaking of which, the animation should be the saving grace of a project like this. And to be sure, some of the segments are dazzling. “On Freedom,” directed by Michal Socha, is a watercolor blur of birds, while Joan Gratz’s “On Work” is a lovely ode to Van Gogh-style brushstrokes. Director Tomm Moore, of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, offers another one of his mesmerizing geometric design schemes, then surprises us by having it suddenly take a turn toward the demonic.
Yet conceptually, almost all of these are literal, visual translations of Gibran’s words, making his work sound all the more like untethered platitudes. Fairly uninspired as a work of its own, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet also didn’t have me rushing out to read the original.