Kahlil Gilbran’s The Prophet is obviously a labor of love, an attempt to spread the poems that the widespread collection to an even wider audience. Director Roger Allers, co-director of The Lion King, collects animated takes on eight of Gibran’s 26 poems, each from a different director that focuses on everything from children to death. There’s undeniable beauty in the words being recited and there are gorgeous visuals that adapt this prose onto the screen. With a series as diverse as The Prophet that deals with all matters of life and what makes it so compelling, by trying to connect all of these ideas into a movie a sole narrative that spans less that 75 minutes, it’s a losing battle in bringing the power that is obviously in the words to film.
Mustafa – a Gilbran surrogate, voiced by Liam Neeson – has been under house arrest for seven years due to the government’s belief that his writings could cause an uprising. Mustafa is often visited by Kamila (Salma Hayek-Pinault), a widowed housekeeper taking care of her daughter Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). Ever since her father died two years ago, Almitra hasn’t spoken, but causes trouble around the local market.
On one visit to Mustafa, Almitra follows her mother, only to discover that after seven years, Mustafa has been given the right to return to his home country, as long as he promises never to return to his current town of Orphalese. Escorted by the guard Halim (John Krasinski), a plotting military sergeant (Alfred Molina), as well as Amitra and Kamila, Mustafa takes the long walk to the boat that will return him home after years of being trapped.
As Mustafa makes his walk to freedom, he is constantly greeted by the people who adore his words. Each person he meets has some issue that Mustafa decides to wax poetic about, with each person leading the film into a animated short about their chosen topic. For example, one person will call the actions of the sergeant evil, which leads into a short about the meaning of what is the difference between good and evil. This technique is at first intriguing, but becomes less and less compelling as it becomes clear the power of the words aren’t coming out in the visuals.
The rare exception is Tomm Moore – director of the gorgeous Song of the Sea – whose rumination on love is a perfect encapsulation of the issue being discussed and the beauty of the visuals, helped largely by the use of a Glen Hansard song. The collection of animators is impressive, including Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Bill Plimpton (Your Face), and Paul Brizzi (A Goofy Movie), but often their styles don’t bring around the same transcendence as Moore’s segment does.
Also hindering the overall story is Allers connective story, which tonally is all over the place, from broad, childish comedy one second to political assassinations the next. Allers’ additions look like mid-90s DreamWorks animated films, but would’ve probably looked just as dated then. Even in his own parts, the animation never seems to be all that consistent, sometimes looking decent, then looking like Prince of Egypt mistakes.
By combining Allers’ story with the eight various shorts, Mustafa comes off as a preachy character and the diversions become so frequent, it becomes frustrating. At a certain point, you just want Mustafa to get to that damned boat without talking to a villager about what eating and drinking means.
Bringing The Prophet to the screen in this matter, with each person getting to tell their own take on one of twenty-six poems is a fascinating idea, if it’s just that. But by trying to have a through-line that connects all these disparate ideas becomes tedious and takes away from what the words are trying to instill. The artistry, words and concept are definitely there, yet the tone and format holds all these other working elements back.