I was never much for poetry. When it comes to making a statement, I prefer a compelling and well-reasoned argument to something more abstract. I find that with poetry, the flowery language and imagery often distracts from the message, such that the audience is left wondering what the point was or whether there was even a coherent point in the first place.
This leaves me at a bit of a loss with regard to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, adapted from a book of prose poetry essays on the human condition, strung together by a flimsy storyline. My lack of familiarity with the source text aside, poetry is such a huge part of the film, and poetry is so extremely subjective by nature, that I feel like I’m out of my depth here. Even by the usual standards of film criticism, it’s hard to describe this one because so much will vary from one person to another. Moreover, it’s tough to adequately convey the themes being explored when the poetry is so layered and elaborate that it’s hard to know if I sufficiently understand the themes to begin with.
But we’re gonna give it a try anyway!
We open with our protagonist, a misunderstood young girl named Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). Ever since her father died a couple of years ago, Almitra has become a reputed troublemaker, sneaking and thieving her way through the little town she calls home. And for whatever bizarre reason, she can apparently talk to seagulls. I don’t know, just go with it. In fact, let’s move on to the real star of the movie.
Mustafa (Liam Neeson) is a political prisoner whose poetry and art have made him immensely popular with the local commoners. Though the local authorities deem him a menace to society and a threat to law and order. For lack of a better option, the PTB have put Mustafa under house arrest, keeping him in a remote home under armed guard (that would be Halim, voiced by John Krasinski). Even better, Mustafa gets his very own housekeeper (Kamila, voiced by Salma Hayek), who happens to be Almitra’s mother.
Seven years into his imprisonment, Mustafa is offered his freedom on condition that he goes immediately back to where he came from. Exactly where his homeland is, why he left, and why he came to this place are never explained. Anyway, most of the film follows Mustafa as he is escorted to the harbor and a boat back home. He shares his wisdom and poetry with the adoring public he meets along the way, as well as young Almitra, who quietly follows Mustafa on his travels.
The film is credited to writer/director Roger Allers, who rose to fame as a writer on some of Disney’s greatest animated hits of the ’90s and ultimately served as a director on The Lion King. But in truth, this is really more of an anthology. Mustafa’s poems are all illustrated by way of animated segments, each one designed and directed by a different team.
The featured directors include Paul and Gaetan Brizzi, both of whom are also seasoned Disney alumni who previously worked on Fantasia 2000. We’ve got Tomm Moore, the mastermind of The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea. Another highlight is Bill Plympton, a fellow Portlander whose extensive list of animated short films includes two Oscar nominees.
These are only a few examples, and the animation is fantastic throughout. The variety greatly enriches the entire movie, especially when we have Mustafa and his teachings to to serve as our through-line and hold all these disparate parts together. Moreover, the poetry of the source material lends itself to some mind-blowing imagery that’s delivered with breathtaking animation. To say nothing of how the sequences use dance, music, and recurring symbols in ways that are fantastic to watch.
And of course, there’s the fact that Mustafa himself is voiced by Liam Neeson. All the voice actors turn in fantastic work (I didn’t even get to mention Frank Langella and Alfred Molina, who play the militaristic villains of the piece), but it’s Neeson’s dulcet tones that make the film work. Really, the film is two hours of psychedelic animation being played while Liam freaking Neeson is reading poetry to us. Tell me that’s not worth the ticket price all on its own.
It’s a great thing that the presentation is so outstanding, because there isn’t much to the narrative. The conflict is strictly two-dimensional (no pun intended), focused entirely on the artist that everyone loves against the tyrannical government everyone hates. It’s a clichéd message that would fall completely flat if it wasn’t presented with such passion. The characters are all animated and voiced in such a vibrant manner that it becomes so easy to sympathize with these characters who are little more than plot devices.
This applies to the poems as well. There were too many times when the poems felt pretentious, loaded with circular logic and redundancies. But again, the poems work because the filmmakers show such creativity and love of the text. The animation alone is enough to present some abstract and interpretive concepts about work, art, death, childbirth, evil, and other aspects of the human condition. I got the very strong impression that this was a very deep film, even if I couldn’t fully appreciate the depth without a couple more viewings and probably a good hard read through the book.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet has a narrative that’s undeniably thin, and your mileage will definitely vary when it comes to the poetry from the source text. Yet the film is undeniably gorgeous, with spellbinding animation and a flawless voice cast.
It’s such a unique and creative film that I have no problem recommending it. Definitely give it a watch and see what you take from it. Even in the worst case scenario, you’ll be experiencing a film like precious few others.