Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2015

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

Poetry in bad form

The animated adaptation of 'The Prophet' is a lousy narrative broken up by sequences of brilliance

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
Director: Roger Allers
Screenplay: Roger Allers, based on The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
Starring: The voices of Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, Alfred Molina, Frank Langella and Quvenzhané Wallis
Rated PG / 1 hour, 24 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Watching Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet is like trying to have a conversation with someone who only speaks in elaborate metaphors. For a minute or two, it's charming. After that, it's insufferable.

It is, as far as I can gather as someone who hasn't read Gibran's book, a rather faithful iteration of its concept. An exiled writer and artist is being escorted to a ship that will finally return him home, and pauses to dole out poetic bits of wisdom to the people he meets along the way.

Fine. That may work beautifully on the page, but on screen, it only half-works - and that half is entirely to do with the handful of distinct animators who bring those bits of wisdom to visual life. We'll get to that shortly. First, and most important, is the bigger picture, and what becomes increasingly clear with each passing segment is that The Prophet and movies are simply a bad fit. At least in a narrative sense. That it even attempts to have a nominally traditional narrative in the first place is kind of the problem.

The story of the exiled would-be revolutionary Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson) and the gruff Sergeant (Alfred Molina) tasked with escorting him to the ship is only useful as a framing device for a series of animated shorts, each from a different filmmaker. It is the work of those filmmakers - far more than the film's official writer and director Roger Allers - that gives The Prophet what life it has. But far too much emphasis and time are given to the immensely tedious Mustafa narrative. He walks along from village to village, with his housekeeper Kamila (Salma Hayek) and her plucky mute daughter Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) in tow, but the primary purpose each time is just to set up the next animated segment. Each segue is more strained than the last, as if Allers' script is trying to force-feed us poetic wisdom. A townsperson drops a basket of fruits and vegetables, and Mustafa launches into an impromptu sermon on the joys of eating and drinking. It becomes laughable, and the structure ends up dulling the beauty of the words even while the images do their best to illuminate them. (I never thought I could get tired of Liam Neeson's voice, but I found myself rolling my eyes whenever his character started talking.)

Honestly, this movie should have just been a shorts program, divorced from the narrative requirements forced on it by both the source material and the realities of producing marketable cinema. But every time a standalone segment ends and we're thrust back into the Mustafa and his long, boring march to (presumed) freedom, the film plummets. I might be inclined to say that it would benefit from being given the full-movie treatment instead of being the fragmented, truncated story it currently is. Then again, Allers shows scant evidence that he could have made anything interesting out of it in any form, so maybe wishing for a more drawn-out version is a thought best forgotten.

Having said all that, the individual segments - idiosyncratically animated interpretations of Gibran's writings - are by and large so memorable and cinematically vibrant that they almost forgive the rest of the film's banalities. Allers and his team brought together not just a talented group of filmmakers, but a group with radically different styles - a couple of whom have been responsible for some of my favorite animated features of recent years, like Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) and Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues).

If you're familiar with their work, their sequences are instantly recognizable - both, in very different ways, use geometric designs to create mosaic-like compositions that feel handmade - and the same could be said of Bill Plympton, who brings his distinctive colored pencil-drawn aesthetic to Gibran's "On Eating and Drinking."

Other contributors were entirely new to me, but no less impressive. The whole thing is a feast of moods and styles - impressionistic, expressionistic, absurdist, carnal, spiritual. It's rare for me to enjoy a film so much in parts while feeling so dissatisfied with it as a whole. The "whole" is the frustration. Every segment in the film is a terrific standalone work. But collectively they're encumbered by a structural concept that makes Gibran's words feel like trite Hallmark card greetings. I think it has to do with the fact that The Prophet ties them all to a character who never actually comes to life on his own; he's just a mouthpiece. And yet we spend so much time with him, and with a mundane story that merely wastes our time in between the film's pieces of true inspiration.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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