The fact that labors of love, while admirable, might not turn out as well as their makers intend is amply demonstrated by this animated take on eight of the spiritually-inclined poetic sermons that Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran put into the mouth of a wise teacher in his best-selling 1923 book “The Prophet,” which has retained a place in popular culture for nine decades. The film is a long-time dream of actress Salma Hayek, who voices a main character as well as serving as one of the producers (as Salma Hayek-Pinault). While high-minded and well-intentioned, however, the result is a bit of a bore, despite some striking images; most adults will find the greeting-card banalities posing as profundities heavy-handed to say the least, while any children they might bring along will probably either doze off or grow increasingly fidgety.
The saving grace of the film lies in the animation of the eight chapters extracted from Gibran’s book—“On Freedom,” “On Children,” “On Marriage,” “On Work,” “On Eating and Drinking,” “On Love,” “On Good and Evil” and “On Death.” The verbal content is of the sappily inspirational variety, but the passages are read in fulsome tones by Liam Neeson, giving them more heft than perhaps they merit, and the animation that serves to illustrate each has been done by real artists of the form—respectively Michal Socha, Nina Paley, Johan Sfar, Joan Gratz, Bill Plympton, Tomm Moore, Mohammed Saeed Harib and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi. Each brings a distinctive look to his or her contribution, and though tastes will differ about their relative effectiveness, all show moments of real visual inspiration.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of the narrative that’s been devised by Roger Allers (“The Lion King”) to tie the various episodes together. It’s the story of a poet and painter named Mustafa (Neeson), who’s been kept under house arrest for seven years by a repressive government for espousing views that, officials contend, promote dissent and rebellion. He befriends Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis), the daughter of his housekeeper (Hayek-Pinault), a rambunctious little girl who hasn’t spoken since the death of her father but warms to the gentle, understanding prisoner. Mustafa also serves as an unobtrusive matchmaker between the girl’s mother and his klutzy, likable guard. His homiletics to the girl and the two adults begin the series of little illustrated life-lessons taken from Gibran’s books.
When it’s announced that Mustafa is going to be shipped off to his homeland, the news requires a walk through the town to the port where a ship awaits. Almitra follows along as a fat, officious sergeant tries to push through crowds of well-wishers demanding that Mustafa stop for a meal and regale them with one of his uplifting soliloquies. Naturally the storyline reaches a concluding roadblock when a nasty general announces a last-minute condition to Mustafa’s release—an act that occasions some public turbulence as well as some final ruminations from the poet/philosopher—but in the end his soothing message proves beneficial in confronting what seem to be the harsh realities of life.
This framing device might have worked if it had been skillfully crafted, but despite Allers’ resume, it’s not. Visually the journey sequences can’t hold a candle to the work of Moore, Gratz or Plympton, to mention only three of the mini-directors; the computer animation, which has been designed to mimic old-fashioned hand-drawn work, comes across as sketchy and bland, and renders the characters in a stilted, lifeless way. But the writing is equally poor, and even a sterling voice cast can’t give it much oomph. Neeson is fine, but Mustafa is turned into a soft-spoken popular hero, which makes the picture a hagiographical portrait of Gibran, for whom he’s standing in; one half-expects the animated figure to boast a halo on his head. Almitra is meant to be lovable, but too often is portrayed as a reckless, thieving kid whose mother treats her with such permissiveness that she seems more an enabler than a concerned parent. And the goofy interplay between the chubby sergeant and his thin, charmingly goofy underling is just a faux Laurel-and-Hardy routine reminiscent of the similarly limp shenanigans that Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon attempted in Disney’s 1961 remake of “Babes in Toyland.”
So those who continue to be moved by Gibran’s words may find “The Prophet” moving and instructive. But one suspects that most viewers will consider it a tedious business. Children will be bored stiff by it, and many of their parents won’t be much more enraptured.