Originally published in 1923, The Prophet by Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran, is one of the most successful and popular books of poetry every produced. Selling more than 100 million copies in more than 40 languages, The Prophet is a collection of 26 illustrated poems that offer advice “On Love,” “On Marriage,” “On Family,” etc., in an effortless and disarming manner. Its words have permeated and persisted in society (“Love one another but make not a bond of love”), and The Prophet is passed around and dispersed as “the counterculture Bible.” If sales, longevity and diversity were any indication, then a cinematic adaption of The Prophet ought to be gangbusters.
That must have been the thinking when writer/director Roger Allers (director of The Lion King) and producer Salma Hayek (sporting her new hyphenated surname Hayek-Pinault — husband François Pinault is an executive producer) set to turn Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet into an animated family feature. They assembled an impressive pedigree of animators and vocal talents to help on their passion project, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Especially when commerce is at stake.
Allers trims Gibran’s original 26 poems down to eight segments, each directed and designed by a different animator — “On Freedom,” Michal Socha; “On Children,” Nina Paley; “On Marriage,” Joann Sfar; “On Work,” Joan Gratz; “On Eating & Drinking,” Bill Plympton; “On Love,” Tomm Moore; “On Good & Evil,” Mohammed Saeed Harib; “On Death,” Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi. It weaves them through a narrative set on a seaside Mediterranean village surrounding the poet, Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson), the woman who cleans his house, Kamila (Hayek), and her rambunctious daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), who constantly manages to find, and sometimes create, trouble.
Mustafa takes a liking to Almitra and bestows upon her the wisdom of his poems. Here is where The Prophet soars, with the individual animators breaking free of convention to explore the themes and textures of Gibran’s poetry.
While the animation of the framing device seems clunky and conventional, it is clearly designed for the children in the audience. It slyly lures them into the story, before plopping them inside Mustafa’s poems, where complex ideas are matched with equally complex and charged images.
For children, this might work. For adults, the narrative is so cumbersome that it holds the movie back from creating the kind of lasting impression Gibran’s book has held for the past 90 years.
Animation is a remarkable medium to work in, for it allows the artists to conceive of possibilities beyond the plausible. It is on display most strongly in Plympton and Socha’s pieces, but all of the segments are reminders that the style and scope of animation is boundless. However, conventionality is a crutch too heavily leaned on and Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet comes off as a tale of two movies. It’s a shame that the entire movie couldn’t embrace the former. What it would have sacrificed in marketability, it would have gained in artistry tenfold.