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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014)

To review the animated film Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014), I think it wise to first discuss Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a book of philosophical poetry. Gibran was a Lebanese writer whose book was published in 1923. It features 26 poetical essays about various life situations and human events that we – mostly – all experience. The topics include such things as: love and marriage, children, eating, work, joy and sorrow, freedom, pain, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, death, etc. You get the idea. And if you think you don’t know this book or its contents, my bet is that you have heard, read, or otherwise seen parts of it somewhere. You just might not realize where it came from.

This may not necessarily seem like it would make a feature-length animated film. In addition to a thin narrative linking the essays together, Gibran’s poetry can be seen as overly flowery, religious, preachy, realistic, or ______ (you can add your own personal adjective as to what you don’t like about such philosophizing). On the other hand, such philosophical work may be something that interests you. The book may express wisdom you find comforting, or interesting at least. My reservations about how this material could be made into a film gave me low expectations going in.

Happily, what I saw was a wonderful little film, with an overall effect that left me surprisingly peaceful while watching it. The framing story is rather simple, but nicely done here: Mustafa is an artist - poet, writer, philosopher - who is also a political prisoner. He is being held on “house arrest” literally in a house he cannot leave, with guards keeping him there. The film opens on the day he is going to receive an offer to be set free to go to his homeland. On that day, the film opens on Almitra, a young girl who has not spoken since her father died. Her free spirit causes trouble in the market because she imagines a life better than the one she is living. She especially wants to fly like the seagull she speaks with in the gull’s language. The entire village sees her as a nuisance at best, a petty thief at worst. This morning is particularly chaotic, so her mother has to take her to her work. Conveniently, she is the housekeeper for the house Mustafa is kept in. Mustafa and Almitra get along wonderfully, as both are imaginative souls, with a sense for justice.

The police come to bargain with Mustafa: he is free to leave and go back to his home. As they bring him through the town, they meet people he had inspired with his words seven years ago. They still revere his wisdom. As they journey, situations arise in which Mustafa recites his (Gibran’s) poetry about various topics. A different animator animates each of these eight recitations. In the end, Mustafa’s words bring change to many lives, though the change is mostly personal, not political. An artist’s life is portrayed as precarious, especially when one’s art does not express the virtues and values that one’s government might like it to.

Roger Allers, director of The Lion King, directed the framing story with Mustafa and Almitra. The other segments were directed by a list of animation luminaries: award-wining Polish animator Michal Socha directed On Freedom; Nina Paley, independent animator and director of Sita Sings the Blues, directed On Children; Joann Sfar, director of The Rabbi's Cat, directed On Marriage; Joan C. Gratz, Oscar-winning independent animator, directed On Work; Bill Plympton, Oscar-winning independent animator, directed On Eating & Drinking; Tomm Moore, director of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, directed On Love; Mohammed Saeed Harib, the first 3D cartoon animator from the Middle East, directed On Good & Evil; and Gaëtan and Paul Brizzi, who once worked with Disney, finished by directing On Death. Each segment is done in a different style. My favorites include Saeed Harib’s On Good and Evil, with a beautiful watercolor painted look, featuring deer and tortoises; Paley’s beautiful character design and animated patterns for On Children; and Sfar’s masterful animation of an arranged marriage as the newly met couple dances together for the first time. The characterization and movement tell a subtle, but rich, story – this one is an animator’s delight. But really they all have beautiful styles and each has something to enjoy fully. Moore’s design work is also beautiful, as usual.

The Prophet may not be for everyone, as the story is a loose narrative, though not without drama, humor, and a bit of charm. However, if the idea doesn’t thrill you, anyone that appreciates the art form of animation should still see this at least once to see the scope of animation’s possibilities all in one film. The film is beautifully crafted and strangely calming. I can imagine this effect being maddening to someone else, but if you appreciate life’s inherent beauty and struggle, as well as appreciate the role art (including animated art) has to play in expressing the full spectrum of life’s dark and light possibilities, this is a film for you. If you are overly cynical, perhaps it would be best to skip it.

In addition to the philosophy in the eight sequences, the framing narrative has much to say about the place art should hold in our lives and why we should feel free to ignore those who don’t believe this is true. Art is a basic expression in, and of, life; it reinforces our every moment if we are wise enough to allow it to. With the use of multiple animating styles, the film echoes the variety of our lives and the varied and changing perspectives we are all capable of. The power of art – or of truth, beauty, or philosophy – can be dangerous as well. The film captures all of this in one beautiful package.

If you are still wary, perhaps the non-animation talent will draw you in. Actress Salma Hayek got involved with the film and acted as Producer. She helped make the decisions: to use animation to bring The Prophet to the screen; to have separate animators create what amount to shorts that animate one of the 26 poems from the book; to use only eight poems, so that they could be visualized properly and not hurried; and to use a framing narrative that allowed these different films to fit appropriately together in one film. In addition, Hayek’s fame and connections directly helped to bring excellent voice talent to the project (Liam Neeson as Mustafa; Hayek as the mother, Kamila; John Krasinski as Halim, the sympathetic guard; Alfred Molina as the Sergeant; Quvenzhané Wallis as Almitra; and Frank Langella as Pasha, the villain). Even Yo Yo Ma shows up to play a little cello. All of these were wise and fruitful decisions.

KAHLIL GIBRAN'S THE PROPHET is a Universal Studios DVD and Blu-ray release available at Amazon.com and distributed by GKIDS.