Kahlil Gibran’s book of poems The Prophet – divided into twenty six sections, with each section offering esoteric and aphoristic life wisdom on a different facet of life – has been enormously popular since its publication in 1923. The book has been one of the main driving forces why Gibran’s philosophical sensibilities, which offer a counterpoint to Western philosophy, have been so easily assimilated into Western thought and intelligentsia. Adapting this work for the screen offers a unique challenge. The Prophet doesn’t lend itself naturally to be reworked into a screenplay. Gibran’s philosophy, though unequivocally fascinating, isn’t concerned with a narrative exegesis, but rather, it’s a conceptual and spiritual engagement with how life manifests itself.
This is where the animated film adaptation, titled Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, is able to pass its first major hurdle with flying colours. The film’s screenplay adds creative elements that enrich Gibran’s work and helps to find a narrative thread between the poems. The narrative follows a free-spirited young girl, Almitra, who has lost her voice and keeps getting in trouble with the local townsfolk. Her mother Kamila (as voiced by Salma Hayek) does her best to keep her out of trouble. One day Almitra finds herself in the company of Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a writer who has been placed under house arrest due to the supposedly “insidious” messages embedded in his work. Mustafa then becomes the vessel for Gibran’s ideas, imparting wisdom to the town as he tries to convince the State to pardon him so that he can return home.
The film is a collaborative triumph. The project, though overseen by Roger Allers as the animation director and screenwriter, has different directors take the helm of its various segments. The segment directors are Joan Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michael Socha, Paul and Gaetan Brizzi. This approach works surprisingly well despite the intuitive high risk involved in execution. The animated segments on the various life facets such as “Love”, “Death”, “Work”, etc. have quite distinct cinematic realisations due to the various aesthetic approaches taken. However, the film manages to thread together a cohesive narrative and sustained tone, the varied input of the different directors adding a new flavour to the narrative arc as opposed to this becoming a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
What stays with you long after the film has ended is its beautiful visual palette. Whenever Mustafa goes delves into his philosophical musings, the animation spurs into life, trying to represent Gibran’s philosophy through imagery and song. The raw vividness of the oft-swirling animation is something to behold. The film also serves as a contrast to the animation stylistics of major studio production houses such as Pixar, for example. There is a mix of watercolours, claymation and even finger painting, all infused with the promise and intrigue of representing animation through a different lens, an aspect that has been lost to the rigidity with which major animation studios today approach their craft. Fittingly, it is this experimental nature that is the most attractive feature about the film. Hence, Gibran’s long-winded poetic monologues, which intuitively seemed the most difficult to adapt for the screen, end up being the centrepiece of this amazing piece of stylistic cinema.
It must be noted that this is not your typical ‘kids’ animation film. In fact, one could argue that this isn’t a kids film at all (much like another recent animated project, Pixar’s Inside Out). Truly appreciating Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a reflexive exercise, much like his written work. This is one of the reasons why it’s somewhat bugged me that the film has screened in the ‘Kids’ section of many of the film festivals where it has been shown. Have we become so reductive that we only see animation films as an exercise targeted specifically at kids?
The film only uses eight of Gibran’s twenty six poems from the original text. There are some issues in transitioning from the larger narrative that’s built in the screenplay to Gibran’s philosophy but that doesn’t take away from the overall visceral impact of the film. All in all, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet ends up being a strong collaborative effort that is a worthy homage to Gibran’s enduring work and eclectic philosophy. Its distinct and experimental animation style adds to the visual impact of an experience that would appeal more to adults than the kids to which its programming targets.