A textbook demonstration of how good intentions don’t always make for good moviemaking, “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” features an all-star cast of vocal performers and a telling list of name-brand animators behind the scenes as well. A clear labor of love where the labor shows, “The Prophet” has a framing story directed by Roger Allers (“Aladdin”), with additional vignettes from eight animation directors including Bill Plympton, Nina Paley and others.
Partially backed by Participant Media — with Hayek herself among the list of producers — “The Prophet” feels like a film curiously divided against itself. Adults may not need the animation and slapstick to appreciate what Gibran’s actual poems, from his 1923 collection of the same name, have to say for themselves; kids drawn in by the wide-eyed animated characters may be confused about the transformation of the book’s original backstory into a politicized framing device, as a poet named Mustafa (Liam Neeson) is released from seven years of house arrest in a pre-modern Mediterranean town and faced with forced exile for his work.
Hayek voices Kamila, the woman tasked with cleaning Mustafa’s cozy cottage of confinement; her daughter Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a trouble-making scamp who hasn’t spoken since the death of her father two years ago. Tagging along without permission on her mother’s work day, she’s our witness to what happens to Mustafa as his release begins to seem more and more like a different kind of imprisonment. Along the way, Mustafa intones various poems from “The Prophet” — about freedom, marriage, work, love — and these are animated by the guest directors who turn them into brief vignettes, each with a different style distinct from the framing sections of the film.
The good news is that many of these episodes are beautiful, striking and expressive. Paley’s, on children, pulses and chimes with movement; Tomm Moore, of “Song of the Sea” and “The Story of Kells,” crafts a segment on love that combines his distinctive animation style with the geometric glittering shapes and sights of a classic Gustav Klimt painting. Unfortunately, the film periodically dumps us back into the framing sequence, which has the curiously too-smooth and too-jerky look of Flash-based computer-crafted animation, which makes “The Prophet” often look and feel like the most earnest episode of “Archer” ever made.
It’s easy to respect the aspirations of “The Prophet.” Most animated movies exist to get kids to buy things, and the idea that this one will encourage them to think more than it encourages them to demand plastic trinkets is one I can certainly respect. At the same time, the Amblin-Entertainment-meets-Amnesty-International feel of the movie, mixing broad family entertainment with big-picture thoughts on poetry and politics, may be too much for even the most talented voice cast and animators to overcome.
The performers are all excellent, even if you get the sense that they didn’t spend more than an afternoon in the recording booth. (At 84 minutes, “The Prophet” feels both too brief and, when it sags, close to eternal.) But intoning poetry feels like a sad under-use of Neeson’s talents, and Mustafa’s character is a two-dimensional saint. Hayek and Wallis do good work as well — so much so that you almost wish the film simply focused on Kamila and Almitra. Other luminaries in the voice cast also deliver, including Alfred Molina plays a blustering cop, Frank Langella is a ice-cold servant of the state.
Allers is one of three credited screenwriters, but this is a clear case where many hands do not make light work; the symbolism and sub-themes here are fairly close to the surface, and that surface is fairly thin. Anyone looking for an introduction to Gibran’s poetry can find it in any bookstore; “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” is achingly well intentioned, but not especially well executed, and its failings as a film can’t be overlooked.