Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet beautifully updates a beloved global classic for modern family audiences, with a dazzling array of animation styles to fill the eyes (and to hold kids’ attention). Political and social issues are heightened to make the English language prose poems written in 1923 by Gibran, a Lebanese immigrant to the United States, resonate today. Both adults and children will appreciate its sights and language.
This is a passion project of actress Salma Hayek-Pinault to commemorate the Lebanese heritage of her paternal grandfather. (She uses her married name in her producing role; she also was a producer of Frida in 2002.) She selected eight of Gibran’s 26 chapters to adapt, chose director Roger Allers (The Lion King, Open Season) to create a linking narrative, and recruited nine unusually diverse, international animators, from renowned pioneers to up-and-coming artists, including two women. All have been inspired by Gibran’s language and themes, but each is distinctively interpreted, with a varied score by Lebanese-born composer Gabriel Yared that incorporates regional instruments, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and vocals by Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, and Lisa Hannigan. The overall visual effect is comparable to omnibus films such as Paris, Je t’aime, but each story here is exquisite.
On a Mediterranean island inspired by Crete, mischievous young Almitra (voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis) runs through the market accidentally creating chaos (with some too-contemporary jokey villagers). Since her father died a couple of years ago, she has been silent in the market and in school (note the nod to girls’ education in the Arab world). Her harried mother Kamila (Hayek) is worried how to sneak her daughter past the kind guard Halim (John Krasinski) and his much tougher sergeant (Alfred Molina) so that she can get to her job as a housekeeper for the confined poet-in-exile Mustafa (an exceptionally plummy-voiced Liam Neeson). Almitra’s friend the bird helps with distractions—but there’s no anthropomorphic Disney-izing.
The poet not only welcomes the plucky girl but hides her and adds her portrait to his drawings. He extols the first theme, “Children,” which sets off American animator Nina Paley (Sita Sings The Blues) to visually enliven the lines, “Your children are not your children/They come through you but not from you,” by having Amazon archers in ancient friezes come to life and quickly multiply from generation to generation.
Word spreads that the billowing sailing ship in the harbor will take Mustafa back to his homeland, and the soldiers accompany him down the scenic mountain and through the village. When they come upon a wedding, the poet is asked for his blessing, and he offers lyrical advice on “Marriage.” French animator Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) draws a flamenco vignette from the lines: “Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,” with a couple’s dramatic steps and dips on a plaza ringed by ruined arches. Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) offers more abstract and pretty images of “Love.”
With each café and shop owner eager for Mustafa’s pronouncements on “Work,” Academy-award winning, thumb painting-with-clay animator Joan Gratz creates an ever-changing whirlwind of activities. In prolific, two-time Oscar-nominated Bill Plympton’s “Eating and Drinking,” his idiosyncratic pencil etchings are in a less cynically surreal mode than in many of his other films.
The swelling crowds of adoring supporters convince the authorities that Mustafa is still a revolutionary threat, and they take him into custody for interrogation by Yousef (John Rhys-Davies, sounding as dastardly as ever). “Good and Evil” is portrayed in the watercolor stylings of Arabic calligraphy by Mohammed Saeed Harib, the Dubai animator who started the animation industry in the United Arab Emirates almost a decade ago with the popular TV series Freej.
With a bow to political reality not found in the book, the Pasha (Frank Langella) sentences Mustafa to “Death,” as imagined by twin French animators Gaetan and Paul Brizzi, recalling their volcano in Fantasia 2000 (but less scary). The poet had earlier reassured Almitra “My words are my wings,” and as the (unseen) shots of the firing squad ring through the village square, Polish animator Michal Socha imagines “Freedom” as stags and other animals running through nature, reminiscent of “The Pastoral Symphony” segment in the original Fantasia. As mother and daughter rush to save the artist’s work, the girl is sure she can see him sailing away, into the future where his words will comprise one of the best-selling books in the world.