UPDATE 8/7/15: With the animated film making its release in New York and Los Angeles today, we take a look back at our coverage from the 2014 Toronto Film Festival:
This article was originally published on September 11, 2014:
The 39th annual Toronto Film Festival soared far from the shores of Lake Ontario to a mythical Middle Eastern City of the Mind with the world premiere of “Khalil Gibran's The Prophet.”
Gibran's name stays in the title, as this movie isn't so much a straight adaptation of the renown Lebanese-born poet/artist's book “The Prophet” as it is an interpretation of his work as a kid-friendly animated omnibus film. It's an unusual project, varying as it does from joke-driven slapstick to lyrical abstractions on concepts like Love, Work and Death. As such the American audience for this picture is likely to be small. Still, for parents who strive to provide an enriched milieu for their kids outside of trips to the library clutching PBS tote bags, this movie may do the trick.
The Prophet was originally written by Gibran in 1923, long after Gibran had emigrated to the United States with his family, returned to Lebanon for some of his schooling, lived in Paris, then came back to Boston and New York. The short book is a loose narrative concerning a learned man who has lived in a foreign city for years and is readying to board a ship and return home. Along the way he is stopped by people and asked to “speak to them” on important topics. (“Speak to us of Reason and Passion,” is how one chapter opens.) The story is really just a clothesline for Gibran to string-along his artfully phrased philosophical musings. (To stay with this example: “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”)
“The Prophet” is one of the best-selling poetry books of all time, and Gibran had a resurgence among 1960s counter-culture types. (John Lennon worked in a line from a Gibran poem into the song “Julia.”) But adapting it to film seemed near-impossible. While different producers owned the movie rights for some time, it took Salma Hayek, who is partially of Lebanese origin, to get the project moving.
Animation seemed like the way to go for a collection of ethereal poems on such enormous themes, so a new wrap-around story was written and directed by Roger Allers. Allers is best known for being one of the directors of The Lion King - and, let's also add, the goofy and fun Over the Hedge. The framing device features Hayek voicing Kamila (Gibran's mother's name), a concerned parent in a far-off Middle Eastern island Orphalese. (Don't look for it on Google Maps, it's not real.)
Her daughter Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a rapscallion of the highest order, literally overturning date carts in the marketplace. She has not spoken since the death of her father, but when she meets the kind artist/poet/political prisoner Mustafa (Liam Neeson) she begins to see the world in a new and enlightened way.
Mustafa's crimes are left vague. And they can't be that bad because he lives in a nice villa and Kamila comes to clean and make him tea. The truth is that this aspect of the film is somewhat flat – the real meat are the poems, which are treated like musical numbers from the golden age of Hollywood. As Mustafa segues into each heavy subject (marriage, food, children) the animation look changes and the keys are handed off to a new director.
A number of great animators add their voice, including Nina Paley (Sita Sings The Blues), Bill Plympton (The Tune) and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (Fantasia 2000). Some sections are abstract and painterly, others are flat and pop-arty. Against Khalil Gibran's words they are all, unquestionably, extraordinary.
The movie has an additional trick up its sleeve. The music to the main section is by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but some of the breakaway sequences are practically rock videos. Well, maybe not rock – let's call it “indie-world-folk.” Artists include Glen Hansard (Once) and Irish pop star Damien Rice.
Parts of Khalil Gibran's The Prophet feel like a typical children's film. (There's a lot with a dopey bird that follows everyone around.) Other parts are so earnest and square kids will roll their eyes. But most of the movie is just straight-up magical, and could, potentially, open young people up to expressionist art and poetry in ways they haven't experienced before.