Not to get all Philip J. Fry, but who isn’t a little leery of movie stars using their clout to bring passion projects to fruition? For certain, Salma Hayek-Pinault’s lovingly animated adaptation of The Prophet comes from a place of sincerity. Yet, there’s a passion there that can also beget a certain amount of tunnel vision, austerity, or worse yet, belligerence. “Can’t you people see how important this is to me?!” is the general vibe that The Prophet gives off. The “me” being the likes of Hayek-Pinault, Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, Yo-Yo Ma, and other names of note. They’re here to tell us like it is when it comes to the poems of Kahlil Gibran. And that’s not to be cynical toward their earnestness, but hesitant to accept Hayek-Pinault’s style of near-messianic devotion to the work of Gibran, the famed Lebanese writer.
It’s called The Prophet, after all. That’s a pretty tall order of a title.
An animation project shepherded by Hayek-Pinault, and directed by The Lion King co-director Roger Allers, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a hymn to Gibran’s 1923 book. For the philosophically inexperienced, The Prophet was a book of 26 poetry essays, or really homilies, told by a man named Almustafa (simply Mustafa in this new film). Mustafa’s finally free from his seven-year house arrest in a Mediterranean seaside village. He’s going home. As Mustafa makes his trip to the pier, he encounters villagers, tells tales of his art and philosophies, and this being a children’s film, explains in it plain prose so as to be understood by a 12-year-old girl he befriends, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis).
In the film Mustafa’s a rabble-rouser, a dangerous, almost Christ-like presence that preaches to the people. What’s his gospel? Songs of life about everyday occurrences. Mustafa contemplates love, marriage, eating, drinking, birth, Earth, and other high concepts. The general, new age mantra of it all being one of kindness and conscientiousness. Or to Bill & Ted this, to be most excellent to one another.
The Prophet goes about imparting these wisdoms with an almost eerie lack of affect. Everything feels like a spiritual manual, a step-by-step guide.
What makes The Prophet worth seeking out is the all-star roster of directors on board, illustrating various chapters of Mustafa’s, or rather Gibran’s, philosophies. We get eight music videos and montages in varying styles. Bill Plympton has a freakish color pencil chapter about eating and the Earth. Tomm Moore of Song of the Sea contributes a musical segment about love’s beckoning powers, and it looks like Gustav Klimt on Saturday morning. Spray paint art, stippled textures, music by Damien Rice, blue and purple tangos in the night, a whole world of color and style; the individual segments are The Prophet’s greatest rewards. It’s a shame the overarching story about Mustafa’s exit is emotionally dumb, and, well, really Disney, with its smirks and big eyes and caricatures.
Perhaps that’s because Allers is a Disney man, an experienced director and storyboard artist of the family variety, so Gibran’s ideas get watered down and made easy. It’s like a handsomely illustrated episode of Davey & Goliath. Almitra has a seagull sidekick, the characterizations are extremely shallow, and the stars on board voice with an almost doe-eyed slavishness. The ideas go down fine enough, yet the honeysuckle form in which they’re presented leaves a suspicious aftertaste. Audiences might be curious to hear reflective ruminations of life and death through song and color and Liam Neeson’s smooth yet gravelly voice, sure, but for lack of a better word, it all still feels weird. As a baseline bullet point list boasting beauteous animations, The Prophet works fine. But again, there’s something that feels shallow about Hayek-Pinault’s nicely printed pamphlet regarding the work of Kahlil Gibran.