The 2014 animated feature, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is one of those projects that seems so implausible that one can’t help but wonder how it got the green light. Thankfully, it was a passion project of actress Salma Hayek who, along with The Lion King director Roger Allers, created a truly beautiful and unique gift. Based around Lebanese-American poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s book, “The Prophet,” the film follows Mustafa, an artist and activist who, after being held under house arrest is escorted through town to a dock where he will be sent back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many locals who welcome his appearance with unbridled celebration and open arms, much to the displeasure of the local government. Mustafa advises the townsfolk, assists them with their daily problems in the form of poetic sermons, which break apart from the larger story, and visually, often to more effect than the main story.
Eight of the book’s original 26 poems were presented in the film as segments, essentially stand-alone short films, divided among some of the worlds leading independent animators, and covered topics ranging from love, labor, hunger, life and death. Although I was pleasantly surprised at the layers presented in Mustafa’s story, it served as more of framing device, as a means to get to the next beautifully animated sermon. This larger story, animated in a CG style known as cel-shading, attempted to look like hand-drawn 2D, but the characters’ movements and acting were stunted by this. This is especially noticeable when compared to the fluid movements of the animals and people in the poems, all done using techniques and in styles that these artists have established themselves with. The wrap-around story itself, although compelling in the political turmoil and debate of artistic expression also left much to be desired. There are a number of moments in this where the film falls victim to common pitfalls of the big US animated feature film: a recurring joke involving a seagull attacking a guard, and the bumbling nature of many of the guards in general. It’s humor for the sake of humor; it does not fit in with the tone of the film, and it is jarring against the darker undercurrents of Mustafa’s plight.
Truly, the soul of this film lies in the efforts of the indie animators, whose sequences tackle subject matter with a lot more depth than slapstick, and directly confront adult conditions that many other larger animated films in America shy away from. They are done either hand-drawn, traditionally, or are digitally animated without the use of CG, and it was very refreshing to see these styles represented on the big screen. A notable standout is New York-based animator Bill Plympton, an Academy Award nominee known for his deceptively clever, at times grotesque portrayals of the human condition, who tacked the segment “On Eating and Drinking,” which was done drawing by drawing in a style that resembles pastels moving across the screen. Sadly, one of the segments did not seem as strong as the rest, that being Nina Paley’s “On Children,” which, partially due to the kaleidoscope setup she used, became repetitive and drawn out. Other artists included Machal Socha, Joann Sfar, Joan Gatz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Paul Brizzi, and Tomm Moore, who is known a little better stateside due to his Oscar nominations for The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Each offered something new in the way they chose to visually represent Gibran’s beautiful words, presented all the more powerfully and meaningfully through the voice of Liam Neeson as Mustafa. These shorts were done tastefully, artistically, but never once compromised the maturity of the original work, and never once did I feel these catered to children. Rather, these did something I often wish other animated films did, and that is to trust and ask them to understand more than we give them credit for.
While the words themselves are beautiful and just as relevant now as when they were first penned, it is truly the animation that steals the show. Together, this unlikely partnership forms a film that is unlike anything else currently being offered. Although not a perfect movie, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet offers us a glimpse into what could be if we just opened our minds a little bit more.
I’d love to explore this film more in the future, and really break down each of the individual little films within this film, because, as I said, that is the true magic of this film. Read an interview with the director over on Cartoon Brew.