“And yet you rise above them unbound”
After watching the animated cinematic adaptation of Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet and hearing his prose poetry read out loud, I can understand both the critical pause and public adoration it’s earned this past century. It consists of the kind of inspirational tales of flowery optimism that many love to read—enough so the book’s twenty-six essay-compilation has been translated into almost fifty languages and never been out-of-print since bowing in 1923. But this type of uplifting human condition rhetoric isn’t for everyone and personally to me can read as pandering and preachy in a way I could do without. Even it’s delivery as sermons from the prophet Almustafa to the people of Orphalese before boarding a ship home after a twelve-year sojourn abroad is an overly cheery sentiment.
It’s interesting then that writer/director Roger Allers takes it to a darker, more realistic setting. Rather than a sabbatical on the island of Orphalese, he’s trapped Mustafa (Liam Neeson) within a seven-year house-arrest prison sentence. We glean he’d incited the people to rebellion with his words, forcing the oppressive regime to silence him without murder so as not to also transform him into a martyr. They’ve holed him away in the countryside to write and paint in solitude, away from the masses until they’ve forgotten his message. Mustafa is soon able to share eight essays with the public because the Sergeant (Alfred Molina) in charge has inexplicably freed him. But while a ship home is their spoken destination like the book, the truth isn’t so hopeful.
How this journey to the water unfolds is hardly original—its main purpose to supply Mustafa reasons to share his poems. Orphalese is introduced via its townspeople and young Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), an adventurous little thief who hasn’t spoken a word since her father passed. She spends her time at market while her mother Kamila (Salma Hayek) shops by running amok with a seagull, stealing dessert rolls and climbing buildings to survey from above. Let’s just say that she and everything else in the square comes toppling down to portray the villagers’ distaste with the girl, her recklessness, and her mother’s failure to prevent it. It’s no surprise the girl would rather follow Kamila to work then deal with those who don’t understand her pain.
Work consists of cleaning the house where Mustafa is confined. She also cooks him his meals and provides him his only company besides kindly guard Halim (John Krasinski) who’s tasked to keep an eye at the gate. It should be just like any other day besides Almitra’s intrusion—her curiosity leading her into Mustafa’s room. This development brings a smile to the man’s face and he treats her with the kindness and respect no one else has been willing to do since becoming mute. He talks of flying out the window to experience the world through imagination, a humbly positive sentiment to tell her she isn’t alone in her loneliness and that she can escape whenever she desires without betraying her vow of silence.
Almitra isn’t the only person visiting today, though, as the Sergeant enters with his news. Mustafa is free as long as he returns home and never comes back. It’s a moment for rejoicing even if it means Kamila is without a job and his time with Almitra is cut short because he can again walk the earth without the wings only extended in his mind. The Sergeant and Halim escort him out, passing by a wedding (he blesses the couple) and gleefully surprised villagers. This is where we discover what it is the people see in him. His inspiring words bring them joy and calm, a steadying force in an unsteady era, so that his freedom is as much a victory for their spirit as it is his.
You couldn’t ask for a better voice to orate Gibran’s essays through Mustafa’s mouthpiece than Neeson, his deep heartfelt melody wresting away our attention as the disparate visual aesthetics facilitate the words into our souls. These vignettes come often, each one a lesson for characters and audience alike to learn compassion, forgiveness, loyalty, and love. If Allers’ over-arching narrative is less than unique, these artistic interpretations ensure The Prophet to be a worthwhile endeavor. Those involved are Michal Socha (“On Freedom”), Nina Paley (“On Children”), Joann Sfar (“On Marriage”), Joan C. Gratz (“On Work”), Bill Plympton (“On Eating & Drinking”), Tomm Moore (“On Love”), Mohammed Saeed Harib (“On Good & Evil”), and Paul & Gaëtan Brizzi (“On Death”). Each one proves a gorgeously lyrical, standalone short of uplifting parable.
On top of these animators are even more artistic names in the realm of music. Not only is Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared involved with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, but Irish vocalists Damien Rice (“On Children”) and Glen Hansard & Lisa Hannigan (“On Love”) sing Gibran’s words into beautiful life. The Celtic sensibility is somewhat weird considering the poet was Lebanese and Allers American, but you cannot deny the effectiveness of Moore’s animation against Hansard’s voice regardless of its cultural significance compared with the Middle Eastern setting. If anything it shows the multi-ethnic appeal of Gibran’s Maronite Catholic message—each resonating beyond language or custom onto a more universally spiritual level. The oppression of art and speech befalling Mustafa something the world over can understand.
For its part the animation is unforgettable. Allers’ main plot of Mustafa and Almitra is memorable itself with thick contoured lines and bright colors. The humor is very cartoonish too, a perfect sense of awe and lesson for youngsters despite the eventual end’s rather harshly poignant example of totalitarian rule. Tempering it with the unique variety of styles actually makes it even better because it becomes one of many rather than another straightforward mainstream aesthetic. I’m partial to Moore and Plympton for no other reason than being familiar with their work, but Sfar’s hyper real tango, Harib’s soft watercolor, and Socha’s surrealistic grain are standouts too. Compiling them together is the perfect way to bring Gibran’s words to life—attractive images for otherwise sententious content.
courtesy of GKIDS