Salma Hayek has worked hard as a producer to get Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran’s seminal collection of poem-essays, The Prophet, to the big screen, and she’s finally succeeded, in the form of an animated film. The book, one of the most popular in the world, is a collection of parables on topics ranging from love and sorrow to work and clothes, and pretty much everything in between, but the movie only adapts eight of the twenty-six essays, clocking in at a lean eighty-four minutes. They should have gone for more essays and cut the storyline that links the parables because frankly, that’s the worst part of the movie. The parables are presented in segments of just a few minutes each, and each one has a different director, making The Prophet technically an anthology. In between the parables, there is a story aimed at children (maybe?) which is borderline intolerable.
Part of the problem for the story framing The Prophet is that nothing anyone comes up with is going to be as good or compelling as the parables drawn from Gibran’s book. The constant see-saw of quality induces whiplash after a while, and you pretty much have to tune out of the Disneyfied story out of self-preservation. Which brings us to the other part of the problem—who is this movie for? Philosophy can be presented to children (see also: Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which also has an animated adaptation with release TBD), but Gibran’s writings are not childish. The Little Prince is explicitly written for children, so it makes sense to adapt it as a children’s movie. But turning The Prophet into a kid’s movie feels weird and out of synch. I cannot imagine any child sitting through this and being anything other than bored. But yet the story is so simple and reductively “kiddie” that it won’t appeal to adults, either.
The narrative connecting everything together is about Mustafa (voiced, perplexingly, by Liam Neeson), jailed for writing subversive poetry, getting a conditional release and befriending a wild child named Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). Hearing Neeson’s distinctive Irish voice coming out of the face of a guy named Mustafa never stops being jarring. Also, by trying to make a story out of a guy telling parables, Mustafa is rendered not as a wise mystic, but as an asshole telling everyone how to live their lives. Instead of letting people draw their own conclusions about their meaning, the movie becomes preachy because it tries to relate the parables to the story unfolding outside the interior narrative space of the parables.
But the parables themselves do work as individual segments. The animation from Secret of the Kells co-director Tomm Moore is especially good, as is the segment done in clay by Joan Gratz, and Neeson’s narration is more effective in these segments, as his voice is divorced from Mustafa’s presence on screen. And of course, Gibran’s words and his poetry are beautiful and compelling, especially when combined with the parade of evocative imagery from the different directors. It’s just that the movie will insist on going back to the unengaging story of Mustafa and Almitra, and bring everything crashing back down, no matter how good the animated parable segment was. The Prophet is baffling and frustrating, and I can’t recommend it because I do not know who this is meant to appeal to. Just read the book.