“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG, 1:25, three stars out of four.
“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet” is a movie made by people under a spell. The spell was cast by “The Prophet,” a slender volume of poetry written by Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran in 1923 that became an international sensation, especially when the counterculture picked it up in the 1960s.
The animated film “inspired by” the book is clearly a labor of love for all concerned, an attempt to both bring Gibran’s words of wisdom to a new audience and to celebrate them with gorgeous animated visuals from a host of top independent animators. The film succeeds wildly at the second goal. Achieving the first is a little trickier.
Former Disney animator Roger Allers has draped a slender story around the poems, which were purported to be the musings of a gifted writer named Mustafa. While heading towards the ship to take him to his homeland, Mustafa is greeted by the local townspeople, and dispenses poems about love, work, death and other weighty topics as he says goodbye.
In the film, the perspective shifts a little to a young girl, Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). Mute since the death of her father, Almitra runs free through the streets of the city, stealing fruit and trinkets from merchants, much to the chagrin of her mother Kamila (Salma Hayek, one of the film’s executive producers). One of Kamila’s jobs is to take care of the exiled author Mustafa (Liam Neeson), and when Almitra follows along, the great writer and the young girl take a shine to each other.
The plot, such as it is, involves Mustafa’s plans to return home, and the nefarious plans of the local soldiers (played by Alfred Molina and Frank Langella) to thwart those plans. But, like in many a musical, the story is really just an excuse for the interludes, in which Neeson reads Gibran’s meditations while a different animator provides stunning illustration.
The itchy, liquid sketches of the great Bill Plympton are married to Mustafa’s meditations on food, while Tomm Moore (“Song of the Sea”) provides gorgeous visuals to a love poem, the lovers bursting off the screen in geometric shards of color. Other sequences provide images that are just as stunning — for the surreal meditation on freedom, we see human-shaped cages full of birds come to life. The animation for the main narrative is in lush, hand-painted 2D animation with rotoscoped characters that recalls vintage Disney like “Aladdin” or “The Lion King.”
Taken together, the images are a feast for the eyes, and a longtime reader of “The Prophet” who knows Gibran’s words by heart will love them. But for someone new to these poems, the beautiful animated sequences might not be the best introduction. The visuals are so beautiful that, as eloquent as Neeson’s readings are, they often distract from the words. And the poems themselves are often so elliptical, with lines like “Trust your dreams, for within them are the gates to eternity,” that they slip past upon a first encounter without leaving an imprint.
Better to enjoy “The Prophet” merely as a celebration of the spirit of Gibran’s poems, which are generous, non-judgmental and wise. He encouraged his readers to savor every drop of life, even the bitter ones, and viewers should relax and savor every panel of this film.