Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), a mischievous thief, mute since the death of her father, follows her mother (Salma Hayek) to work one day. Her mother acts as housekeeper to the poet and eponymous prophet Mustapha (Liam Neeson), who after seven years house arrest has his sentence commuted to exile. As Almitra, her mother and Mustafa make their way to the docks, with guards ensuring their journey, Mustafa passes on aphorisms to those he meets on the way.
To those who’ve read The Prophet and are now wondering if they forgot some plot points: No, you didn’t. Only about ten percent of that summary occurs in the book. Roger Allers, director and screenwriter, expands the book’s barely there framing narrative into a full-blown beginning-middle-and-end story, complete with governmental oppression, slapstick, and characters who start somewhere and end somewhere different.
OK, fine, you’re trying to captivate a family audience who may not embrace a film comprised purely of vignettes on spirituality – have a story if you think that’ll get them engaged. But did you have to make it so bloated? Did you have to include a cliché parent-child rift repair sub-plot? Did you have to have a bumbling villain, whom we know is always wrong because whenever he disagrees with Mustafa some ‘hilarious’ pratfall occurs? Could you not have restricted the narrative to something unobtrusive, like a walk down a road toward the docks with Mustafa meeting and consulting people along the way?
Excess is the film’s failing, and nowhere is that so cringe-inducingly obvious than in the score. Allers’ overbearing use of music reeks of, at best, saccharine sentimentality, at worst, audience manipulation. It signifies an artist who doesn’t trust the weight of a scene, so he pumps emotions directly into his audience to compensate1. I know this is a family film, meaning kids will watch it, but kids aren’t emotional dullards. They understand which images are happy and sad, triumphant and defeated. They don’t need music to nudge them into crying and smiling.
Visually the film is better, but that’s not saying much. The 3D on 2D art-style... works, in the sense I can ignore it. It never adds to the film, and at worst creates a disconnect between the cell-shaded character models and the 2D backgrounds. I felt a certain stiffness in the characters’ movements. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting choice.
And, at last, I must mention the prophet. Liam Neeson played Lion-Jesus with less sanctimony. His voice, meant to embody the calm charisma of an enlightened soul, evokes every smarm-stuffed, arrogantly humble guidance counsellor you’ve had the misfortune to pass by2. He also walks with his coat thrown over his shoulder. Take that as you will.
You may notice I have, till now, only discussed the framing narrative. I do so because it is the most egregious part of the film. I wring its taste from my tongue so I may critique the vignettes sans aftertaste. These abstract little symbols are the only reasons I didn’t regret buying a ticket. The vignettes work like this: a person asks Mustafa for advice about love, work, children, etc. and Mustafa narrates an aphorism while an impressionistic short animation plays. Each aphorism was handed to a different director, leading to noticeably different styles between shorts that, nonetheless, feel of the same cloth. Here the music feels part of the film, rather than an imposition upon it. Neeson’s tone of voice actually works during these aphorisms, evoking wisdom, not self-satisfaction.
As with most anthologies it’s hit and miss, but veers towards the former. I could have done without the music videos, but they’re only two of around seven. Were the film out on home media I’d suggest you forgo the framing narrative and skip straight to them. To give an idea of their appeal: in an essay on freedom we see birds trapped within a wireframe man; in an essay on work we see impressionist landscapes blur into one another. None perfectly evoke Gibran’s words – For example, the one on marriage dismisses the visual imagery within the passage in favour of, admittedly pretty, Flamenco dancing – but for those of you looking for an interesting look at his work, or are just looking for an entry point for you or your kids, these are invaluable gems.
Putting aside the framing narrative, which, in polite terms, is forgettable, Allers directs an above decent rendition of Gibran’s greatest hits, accessible to the whole family. I say, ‘Putting aside,’ but, of course, that is impossible. Like spoilt milk in a café latte, you can’t ignore the framing narrative constituting two-thirds of the film. Wait until you can watch it at home and then skip to the shorts – the only reason to watch the film.
1 Ironically shoddy film-making from the director of The Lion King.
2 To be fair, having listened to many soporific author interviews, I can attest this is how writers talk, and all others who think themselves wise.