Saturday, 8 August 2015

Review: Kahil Gibran's The Prophet (Film)

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.   


  1. I just spent the whole morning watching the film for this review (now I am going to spend the whole afternoon writing about it)… First of all, it was a 2014 animated film. The artistic style is the combination of 2D water-colour background with 3D animated characters. The advantage of 2D characters is that their body language and facial expression can have more diversity and be thus more expressive with emotions (“The Power of Body Language!” — Ursula, The Little Mermaid). The power of musical and the expression of 2D animation with a complex struggle of emotion can be best shown in Hellfire:, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney, 1996). Even with the 3D model, Disney’s Paperman (2012, a short animation), is a perfect hybrid between 3D and 2D, with a great facial expression on the character:
    Certain artistic style in this film reminds me of animated studio, Cartoon Saloon, which Tomm Moore (the director) has participated into The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014), and this film Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014)… The subplot of the distance between family is all present in three films, but it feels very natural in the other two films (highly recommend you to see those two beautifully 2D-animated film, here is a clip of Song of the Sea,, look how the beautiful 2D animated simple characters look so much better than this film). Yes, with the dealing of religious theme, books and art, The Secret of Kells (2009) is much superior. With a mute female child, Song of the Seas is also more powerful and explores the emotion of that child most naturally.
    This film is a hybrid between seriousness and family-friendliness to not a good balance. If it is to be religious and musical in an animated film, look at The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks, 1998) for family picture. The Jesus imagery is either idealised or too obvious. I am sure that all the civilian is never brainwashed by the local government to fight against Jesus, and I am sure that they do not have religion by themselves who will teach exactly the same lesson about Love and Death. Why is this poet so important whose writing and message are almost exactly the same as Jesus? Local people need a saviour from another country (white Jesus controversy…). And furthermore, because this one so focus on child and love, love, and love… the imagery or the theme when they put together in shorts (rather than Disney’s true love saves the day), the emphasis is too much on heterosexuality (now, we have the controversy of the visibility of homosexuality in child’s film, but to be fair, if we exclude such visibility from children, and I wonder why they should feel that they need to hide their sexuality and try to form a family and give birth to a child, and why LGBTIQ first have a hard time to recognize their identity, then without their peers understanding or knowing it, that they themselves do not know how to handle it, and try to hide and suffer, and suffer… That is the problem of this film, all the poetry is trying to preach, with wise message with no subtlety at all. Would not Mahatma Gandhi rather than a poet fit better in this place? I want to see a film about how a person become a prophet but not another Jesus lives forever in our heart story…
    With each poetry comes with an animated short with different directors and different style… I feel all the problem can be solved so easily in this film by talking, I wonder if the prophet is loved by so many, that an artist is adored by people, why is there no man paining, writing, reading in this film (beside our Jesus symbol of course)? Then we have our villain’s sidekick (rather than the really villain) to provide comical relief… Seriously, a non-threatening plump stupid person (as always for child’s film), who loves to eat a lot, why is he in charge again?

  2. Why does the prophet have to be male? Actually, is there no female wise people alive? I understand that the original one is a male, but truth to be told, all stories are selected mostly by male, or male’s value (or let us use patriarch, because female writer always has a voice, but sometimes their voice is not paid adequate attention, all stories are written by man and woman, so, we must hear the both side).
    Why should not a woman be a prophet? Yes, indeed, why should not be film be more experimental with sometimes a female voice narrating a poem? But all in all, one of the redeeming feature for me is perhaps they have made the child into a little girl (rather than a boy, who would be in her shoes traditionally). Yet, we must further admit Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002) has handled the family drama and the dealing with the lost much better. I wonder why should this girl who feel so sorry that her father is dead, could not try to help comfort her mother who is trying to strong for her, and is actually alright to have a ‘replacement’ or for her mother to marry (possibly) again? This framing device is too unnecessary (as I would like to see sometimes in ‘real world’, conflict and problem can be solved so quickly, so effectively in words only…).
    With the dealing of a Jesus figure, or at least such issue between people and government, Persepolis has done the job much better (2007), and I also recommend people to that one instead. As for the shorts, yes, when we have Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Make Mine Music (1946) and melody Time (1948), with no central story, but all shorts, why should we use such awkward manner to get all poems across?
    This is a “Tree” from “Melody Time” from Disney:, and this is “Two Silhouettes” from “Make Mine Music” from Disney:, and the sorrow expressed by “Without You” from “Make Mine Music” from Disney:, how about the “Firebird” from Disney’s Fantasia 2000,, dealing also life and death, and it resembles the animated in this film dealing with the same issue in an almost similar manner (but there are some similarity in image). Even with short stories, there are films, such as: Princes et princesses (Princes and Princesses), which is a 2000 French film, and the Tales of the Night (2011 with the same French director), to tell short stories in a cinema setting with a girl and boy participating in different stories as actors (check these two out as well, they are simple and wonderful, thus powerful).
    I am perhaps too disappointed with the film and might be a little bit harsh in my judgment, but this one besides its artistic diversity, tells no new mortal (but it does not need to), and gives no new sensations (as a matter of fact, because it focuses a little too much on mortal lessons, my emotion hardly stir, and I really wish there is no such assumed ‘wise’ and ‘philosophical’ voices running through the beautiful animation). Come to think of it, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, by Studio Ghibli) has more poem in it than this one without words (just image, good choices of music style, and dialogues), check it out, but all in all, I shall stop (for there are so many better ways and better examples to tell each story within this film).

    1. The film is inferior to the book (though I have not read the book in years). The poor handling of the material seems an unintentional metaphor. A prophet speaks profoundly, his lay-followers smooth the profundities into platitudes.

      I would disagree that there is Jesus imagery in here. It seems more that the prophet is the stereotypical quasi-countercultural wise man, which just so happens to a the stereotype Christians have been trying to spin Jesus as. Though perhaps I am so immersed in Western, Abramic culture that I can't see the obvious here.

      You criticise the film by bringing up other films that do its individual elements better. I would be harsher. It's not that the film's parts aren't great, they're mediocre. Had none of the films you compared this one to existed, this film would still be mediocre.