Film Review: ‘Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’

A world-class group of animators come together to interpret Gibran's poetic life lessons, presented as welcome interruptions to a less charming political parable.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
Image courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

Think of “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” as a gift: a work of essential spiritual enlightenment, elegantly interpreted by nine of the world’s leading independent animators, all tied up and wrapped in a family-friendly bow by “The Lion King” director Roger Allers. A longtime passion project for producer Salma Hayek (credited here as Salma Hayek-Pinault), Lebanese philosopher-poet Gibran’s cherished guide to life, death, love, art and so forth doesn’t naturally lend itself to bigscreen interpretation, and at first, the pic’s framing device seems too silly for such soulful subject matter. But the freshly scripted wraparound doesn’t shy away from grown-up concerns, while potentially broadening the book’s reach to younger audiences as well. Although Hayek had hoped to land a higher-profile distrib, she will probably have better luck with the toon champs at GKids, whose white-glove release efforts have netted six Oscar nominations so far.

In Gibran’s book, a wise teacher, after spending a dozen years in a foreign land, offers 26 sermons on subjects essential to leading a fulfilled and meaningful existence, then sets sail for his home country — a format rich with enlightenment, but dangerously thin on dramatic incident. For the film, Hayek selected eight of the most beloved chapters and delegated each to a different toon talent, inviting the various artists to find interpret Gibran’s sentiments according to their distinctive visual styles.

In order to flesh out the narrative connecting these vignettes, director Allers devised a more elaborate backstory, inventing a mischievous young girl whose name, Almitra, he borrows from the book. The feisty young lady seldom speaks (when she does, it’s Quvenzhane Wallis who delivers Almitra’s lines), but runs around the town of Orphalese wreaking havoc while her harried mother (voiced by Hayek) tends to the prophet character, Mustafa (Liam Neeson).

For dramatic purposes, Mustafa has been promoted to a regime-threatening dissident: Kept under house arrest, he’s perceived as a threat to the local government. The authorities announce their intentions to send him home, but appear to have more sinister plans in store, and Mustafa’s lessons take on a new importance: quite possibly the final words of a condemned man. That’s a heavily politicized parable within which to present teachings that don’t feel all that subversive to begin with, especially for younger audiences who might not be comfortable with the idea that some ideas can be dangerous enough to carry death sentences. Still, the tactic elevates Mustafa’s character to a sort of martyr, making every word count — not that his beautiful aphorisms need the help, thanks to the already intoxicating combination of Neeson’s mellifluous delivery and Gabriel Yared’s score.

If only Allers’ in-between portions were as engaging as Mustafa’s speeches. As fruit carts spill and opinionated seagulls take aim at authority figures, both the action and the animation of the main story leave something to be desired — at least in contrast with the calming artistic interludes that break up such buffoonery. Designed to mimic the look of classic hand-drawn cartoons, Allers’ scenes actually seem to have been achieved through some sort of not-yet-perfected rotoscope process, except that instead of tracing live-action footage (the way Disney made Snow White dance so realistically 77 years earlier), his crew flattens computer-animated models into 2D-style characters with sometimes awkward results: a too-fluid sense of movement, coupled with a split-second delay as the animation lags ever so slightly (at least the backgrounds appear lovingly homemade).

Chalk that up as a small technical quibble — or perhaps a necessary concession given the challenge of producing hand-drawn animation in the new digital era — although several of the other contributors seem determined to keep the bespoke tradition alive. For example, the astoundingly prolific Bill Plympton still sketches every frame by hand, interpreting “On Eating & Drinking” with colored pencil (but none of his usual humor, alas). Emirati animator Mohammed Saeed Harib stunningly combines watercolor elements for “On Good & Evil’s” nature-centric montage, while award-winning Italian twins Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (who worked for Disney on the studio’s final non-CG toons, including the Firebird sequence from “Fantasia 2000”) not only brought old-school drawing skills to the final chapter, “On Death,” but storyboarded all of Allers’ material as well.

“Work is love made visible,” Mustafa preaches in “The Prophet’s” most awe-inspiring segment, “On Work.” The sequence, overseen by clay-painting pioneer Joan Gratz (an Oscar winner for her short “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase”) proves as visually mesmerizing as it is profound: Hands, bodies and the cosmos themselves swirl and transform before our eyes as Neeson shares Gibran’s insights on labor and the creative impulse itself. Though inevitably uneven in places, the film undeniably reflects this idea of a project boosted by the passion of all who participated.

For Hayek, whose star persona is so indelibly linked to her Mexican heritage, this project represents an long-overdue chance to share her lesser-known Lebanese background (on her father’s side). As producer, she not only enabled the first Arabic character in her filmography, but also hand-selected an international roster of independent animators to with whom to collaborate, choosing artists who’ve maintained their independence in a medium that tends to merchandize everything. That’s where Allers proves such an important collaborator, steering Gibran’s esotericism back toward the mainstream and giving the project a form that feels orderly and unified.

The final delight arrives in the form of music — a natural complement to the film’s already poetic source material — not just Yared’s alternately poignant and playful accompaniment, but also two original songs whose lyrics quote “The Prophet” directly: Damien Rice’s “On Children,” which rescues Nina Paley’s otherwise disappointing (albeit trippily kaleidoscopic) contribution, and Irish siren Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard’s duet, “On Love,” which “The Secret of Kells” animator Tomm Moore transforms into a radiant Art Nouveau whirl, as vibrant as a Gustav Klimt painting come to life. As if it weren’t special enough to hear Neeson recite Gibran’s sentiments amidst such striking visuals, the addition of music further elevates verses that so many have already committed to memory and which a whole new audience can now discover for the first time.

Framing story
CG supervisor, Chris Browne; animation director, Eric Prebende; line producer, Marcia Gwendolyn Jones; producers, Viola Chen, Faye Fu.

On Freedom
Produced, directed, designed, animated by Michal Socha. Sound designer, Bartek Baranowski.

On Children
Produced, directed, designed, animated by Nina Paley. Music, Damien Rice.

On Marriage
Produced by Antoine Delesvaux, Clement Oubrerie, Joann Sfar. Directed, designed by Sfar. Editor, Elif Uluengin; choreographer, Philippe Decoufle; animation director, David Garcia; character designers, Sfar, Adrien Gromelle; line producer, Mayumi Pavy.

On Work
Produced, directed, designed, animated by Joan Gratz.

On Eating & Drinking
Produced by Desiree Stavracos. Directed, designed, animated by Bill Plympton. Editors, Sandrine Plympton, Stavracos.

On Love
Produced by Paul Young, Gerry Shirren. Directed, designed by Tomm Moore. Co-director/art director, Ross Stewart; camera/editor, Darragh Byrne; music, Lisa Hannigan; animation supervisor, Eve Guastella; line producer, Jonathan Clarke; character designers, Rosa Ballester Cabo, Moore, Stewart.

On Good & Evil
Produced by Hugo Allart. Executive producer, Benjamin Monie. Directed, designed by Mohammed Saeed Harib. Art directors, Michael Moercant, Jean-Yves Parent, Vincent Venchiarutti; character designers, Parent, Venchiarutti;

On Death
A Graphite, Nectarious Films production. Produced, directed, designed, animated by Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi. Editor, Emmanuelle Gabet.

Film Review: ‘Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2014. (Also in Women of the World Festival, New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN.

  • Production: (Animated — Canada-France-Lebanon-Qatar-U.S.) A GKids release of a Doha Film Institute, Participant Media, Code Red Prods., FFA Private Bank, Mygroup, Financiere Pinault presentation of a Ventanarosa production, co-produced by the Gibran National Committee, in association with Hanson Inc., Creative Projects Group. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Salma Hayek-Pinault, Clark Peterson, Jose Tamez, Ron Senkowski. Executive producers, Steve Hanson, Francois Pinault, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Julia Lelebev, Leonid Lebedev, Nael Nasr, Haytham Nasr, Jean Riachi, Julien Khabbaz, William Nix. Co-executive producers, Jenny Samson Jacob, Mark N. Karavite, Gregory Pike. Executive in charge of production, David Lipman.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Roger Allers. Inspired by the book “The Prophet,” written by Kahlil Gibran. Camera (color); editor, Jennifer Dolce; music, Gabriel Yared; music supervisor, Howard Paar; art director, Bjarne Hansen; sound (Dolby); sound designer, James Wallace; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Kelly Cole, Bill Mellow; character designer, Uwe Heidschoetter; line producer, Marci Levine.
  • With: Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek-Pinault, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, John Rhys-Davies, Quvenzhane Wallis. (English dialogue)