Lawrence Toppman

‘Prophet’ delights the eye, if not always the ear

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

How you feel about “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” one of the most visually stimulating films of this or any year, depends on 1) how much you love animation and 2) what you think of Kahlil Gibran.

For me, the answers are 1) a great deal and 2) the jury’s out. On the basis of one try at his most famous work in college and big chunks of it quoted in this picture, he alternates among profound insight, metaphor-laden obscurity and a few utterances of patent nonsense.

The title’s a bit misleading, as the Lebanese-born poet’s 1923 book had a much simpler framework. The prophet Almustafa, who has lived in the foreign city of Orphalese for 12 years, walks through the town and down to the harbor, where a ship will take him home. Along the way, he chats with people about love, work, freedom and other aspects of life.

In the film script by Roger Allers, Hannah Weg and Douglas Wood, Mustafa (Liam Neeson) has been under house arrest for seven years, because he almost toppled a wicked Pasha with incendiary comments about dictatorships. Now he’s promised a free voyage back to his homeland. But as he walks toward the harbor, dispensing wisdom and blessings to old acquaintances, he realizes the real end of the trip will be a jail cell with a firing squad behind it – unless he renounces his writings.

This clunky framing device doesn’t work. There’s no reason for the Pasha to have put him up for seven years in a comfortable house rather than a dungeon, or to threaten him with death now. (He’s not inciting anybody.) The story barely develops the characters of a housekeeper who has a crush on him (Salma Hayek), her once-vocal and now mute daughter (Quvenzhane Wallis) or the shy, goofy guard who yearns for the housekeeper (John Krasinski).

Yet animation sequences redeem the film eight times. Whenever Mustafa stops to recite Gibran’s poems, some verbatim or at great length, guest animators take over the screen.

Nina Paley (“Sita Sings the Blues”) contributed one psychedelic episode; colored-pencil drawings by Bill Plympton (“Idiots and Angels”) swirl in another; Tomm Moore, whose shape-shifting work in “Song of the Sea” earned an Oscar nomination, did a third. (Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard supply the wispy ballad “On Love” for that one.) Brothers Gaëtan and Paul Brizzi (who created the “Firebird” sequence for “Fantasia 2000”) supply the lushly colored animation that ties segments together.

Neeson’s gentle, sonorous voice perfectly underpins these visual extravaganzas. “Only when you drink from the river of silence can you indeed sing,” he intones. And, in an address to an apple, “Your seeds shall live in my body, and the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart.” Whether this makes you want to open your soul or plug your ears, there’ll be plenty to see.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Voice cast: Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, Quvenzhane Wallis.

Director: Roger Allers (and many other animators).

Length: 84 minutes.

Rating: PG (thematic elements including some violence and sensual images).

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