There are a couple of early moments in “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” that might make those adults unfamiliar with the source material suspicious on whether they’re in for a puerile snoozer. A little girl steals food from burly, unsuspecting, vendors in a Middle Eastern market place ala “Aladdin,” then finds herself on the rooftops (much to her poor mother’s chagrin, of course) looking at a magnificent ship on the horizon, and spreading her arms wide. Somewhere in the back of a locked-away corner of your mind Celine Dion starts to sing, and you think, “Uh oh, what’ve I gotten myself into.” A bit of patience is all that’s needed, however, before we meet Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson) and get swept away by the film’s first vignette; a gorgeously animated segment of birds and cages, unfolding before your eyes as Neeson recites Gibran’s profound words on what it means to be truly free. It’s at this moment when both adult and child viewer alike are transported into Salma Hayek‘s and Roger Allers‘ heartfelt adaptation of ‘The Prophet,’ wherein all residue of pop culture references dissipate to make way for a unique and soulful experience.
In many ways, this is Salma Hayek’s baby. Not only does she voice the lead female role, Kamila (the aforementioned worried mother), but, she’s the lead producer on the project and the one who brought on “The Lion King” director Allers to act as supervising director for the whole project. More than this, she had the idea of commissioning different directors to oversee each of Gibran’s infamous parables included in the film, adding an enchanting variety to the finished result that ends up being biggest asset of ‘The Prophet.’ Lest we forget, it was also by her initiative that landed Neeson for the part of the free-spirited and prophetic Mustafa, the work’s philosophical epicenter. His beguiling cadence adds further dimension to Gibran’s most oft-repeated phrases, reassuring those who’ve never read them that they come from a place of deep-rooted knowledge about the ways of the world. Mustafa’s tender soliloquy on the essence of marriage, for example, puts all of history’s wedding toasts to shame when he gives his blessing to a couple of young newlyweds early on.
As such, Hayek’s passion project is a stimulating success for the senses. Some of the directors involved include Nina Paley (“Sita Sing’s The Blues“), Tomm Moore (“The Secret Of Kells“), and Joann Sfar (“The Rabbi’s Cat“), and each bring a unique vision that captures the artistic beauty of Gibran’s poetry in a sensitive and alluring hand-drawn simulacrum. It’s a world rendered in drastically different fashion than the one dictated by the current, computer-driven, practice of the animation game, which is nothing if not a breath a fresh air. Everyone will no doubt walk away with a personal favorite segment, and mine come right at the beginning and end with tales of unbound freedom and the nature of evil, respectively. Adding further modes of representation is the choice of singing some of Gibran’s words, with music from the likes of Damien Rice and Yo-Yo Ma. This didn’t quite work for me every time, as they end up second best by some distance to Neeson’s recitation, but it’s nothing too distracting and one applauds the inventive attempt at bringing these phrases to life.
There is, however, a bit of an adverse effect created in the film’s parts that don’t feature Mustafa’s virtuous musings. The hardships of adapting a plotless piece of work bear bitter fruits in the story’s scant narrative; Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis) is Kamila’s troublesome young daughter who meets Mustafa while he is under house arrest (for inciting rebellious thoughts through his poetry), and follows him as he is escorted by a lumpy Sergeant (Alfred Molina) to the port, on the promise that he will be released from his seven-year sentence and returned to his home country. Kamila and her admirer, a sympathizing guard called Halim (John Krasinski), follow the child and the poet through the town, as Mustafa is stopped by various townsfolk and asked to speak his wisdom. The superfluous comic relief, bland tableaux-like animation, and phony dialogue turn the storyline into something of a narrative lapse, making one yearn for one of Mustafa’s vignettes that much more.
But I’ve discussed the film’s threadbare plot at the end for a reason. It’s of tertiary importance to the overall experience of watching “Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet,” and its flaws should in no way impede those interested in watching what is ultimately a truly rewarding piece of work. Hayek, Allers, Neeson, and the rest of the principal cast and crew should be proud of their achievement in bringing one of 20th century’s most popular works of prose poetry to gloriously uplifting, and life-affirming, light. One can only hope that the younger generation will welcome the insightful teachings of ‘The Prophet’ with an open mind. [B+]