Sunday, July 17, 2016

"The Prophet" is a Beautiful Mess

As an traditional animation fan, I'd been hearing about the production of "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" for a long time.  It's based on Gibran's influential essay collection, which offers words of wisdom on many different aspects of human life, from love and marriage to crime and punishment.  I heard that it was going to be an anthology film, and an impressive list of animators were onboard to direct the various segments, including Bill Plympton ("Idiots and Angels"), Tomm Moore ("Song of the Sea"), (" Nina Paley ("Sita Sings the Blues"), Joann Sfarr ("The Rabbi's Cat"), and the Brizzi brothers ("Fantasia 2000").

However, most of "The Prophet" is taken up with the story of a man named Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a poet and teacher who has been imprisoned on the island of Orphalese for political activism by the local authorities.  He is visited regularly only by a housekeeper, Kamila (Salma Hayek, who also produced the film), and a bumbling guard, Halim (John Krasinski).  Widowed Kamila has a young daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) who has been refusing to speak and getting into all kinds of trouble since her father's death.  It's from Almitra's point of view that we watch the story unfold, as she sneaks into Mustafa's house one day, right as he's finally being granted his freedom.  The various essays from "The Prophet" are incorporated as Mustafa's advice and stories, each accompanied by animated visuals from different directors, who all work in their own individual style.

The Almitra and Mustafa framing story is directed by Roger Allers, best known for co-directing "The Lion King," and it looks and feels exactly like a 1990s Disney feature down to the cute animals and blustering guards.  The animation is good enough that it could pass as something from a major studio, though the designs are pretty generic.  The story, however, is utterly bland and dull.  It reeks of something mature being simplified and reframed to be spoon-fed to younger viewers in the most tedious way possible.  None of the characters have any personality beyond their assigned tropes of flawless messiah figure, worried mother, adorable brat, etc.  The essay segments are thankfully mostly immune to this, since the only dialogue is Liam Neeson's recitation of Kahlil Ghibran's actual text from "The Prophet."  However, the feature as a whole has an unfortunate didactic quality, and too often feels on par with a very fancy Bible study supplement.

I'm torn about whether to recommend the film or not, because some of the individual essay segments are really spectacular.  I especially enjoyed the Tomm Moore segment, "On Love," with its fluid Gustav Klimt-esque renderings of an eventful relationship, Michal Socha’s “On Freedom" a fable about birds and cages told with painterly silhouettes, and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi's "On Death, with its abstract, classically influenced journey to the infinite.  However, that framing segment just rubbed me entirely the wrong way. It's well-intentioned, but comes off as so weirdly patronizing and tone-deaf.  I suspect the film's producers wanted an easy entry point into the Ghibran's text, and didn't trust the individual essay segments to stand on their own.  However, the framing story is easily the weakest part of the film, and ends up reducing the enjoyability of the whole work.

But tor all its flaws, it's heartening to see something as ambitious as "The Prophet" being made.  Salma Hayek reportedly spent years getting this to the screen as a passion project, and I admire her drive to share Gibran's work.  And I'm so grateful that she created such a wonderful opportunity for so many artists to produce more unique traditional animation, which is far too rare these days.  It's clear from the directors involved that this was a major consideration.  I haven't seen anything new in ages from Joan Gratz, who made the seminal "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase" decades ago, and contributed "On Work" here.  And it's good to get to know Mohammed Saeed Harib, whose "On Good and Evil" has such lively visuals, I initially mistook it for the Brizzis' segment.  I've always love animation anthology films, and "The Prophet" was a good reminder of why that is.

So in light of the continuing dominance of CGI animation in the current marketplace, "The Prophet" is simply too rare and precious a beast to be written off.  On my next viewing, however, I'll be fast-forwarding through Almitra's antics.

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