Does everything need to be a movie? Even the staunchest film buff might wonder from time to time. Some material — a book, a comic, a Broadway show, a concept album — is perfectly content to stay what it is and not get amped up and dumbed down to placate the multiplexers. The enduringly popular The Prophet, a book of spiritual prose poetry by the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran, might seem to be that kind of material. Like the Ancient Mariner, its titular protagonist stops and talks to random listeners; unlike the Mariner, the Prophet, Al-Mustafa, relates no compelling narrative, but a series of ruminations on life, death, love, work, and so on. Movies were made out of such comparable ’60s dorm-room faves as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Little Prince, but Gibran’s work has for almost a century seemed happy enough to exist as a pocket-size book.
Now there is an animated film “inspired by” The Prophet, and its driving force is co-producer Salma Hayek, who has Lebanese roots on her father’s side. The film is a personal project for Hayek, who also voices a character in the movie, a character that, like most others onscreen, does not actually figure in Gibran’s book. No matter. Hayek has clearly undertaken this project because she wants it to reach children in some way, even in somewhat watered-down and very abbreviated form (the script often just paraphrases Gibran, and only eight of the book’s 26 poems are tackled). And even the least generous viewer might have to admit, it could have been a lot worse. One shudders at the thought of a Disneyfied Al-Mustafa (shortened here to Mustafa) belting show tunes (“Your Children Are Not Your Children,” performed by Adam Levine ft. Lorde).
We sort of get a Disney version anyway, because writer-director Roger Allers, who helmed The Lion King, devises a framing sequence that seems a bit Aladdin-y, complete with young heroine Almitra running all around a street bazaar in a typical boisterous Disney opener to hook the kids. Once the movie settles down, it improves. Almitra, who hasn’t spoken since her father died, accompanies her mother Kamila (Hayek) to a remote spot where the poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson) is under house arrest for seditious poetry. Kamila goes there every day to clean house, but then Mustafa is mysteriously set free, and on his way to the ship that will carry him home he meets various people whom he favors with his insights on life, death, love, work, and so on.
It’s here that The Prophet becomes a sampler of work from animators the world over, from Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) to Bill Plympton (The Tune) to Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) to Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells). A lot of this stuff is elegant, imaginative, first-rate (although my issue with Plympton as a guy who does animation to show off how clever he is — a sort of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu of cartoons — persists here). The visualizations of Gibran’s concepts are sometimes so arresting that I, for one, lost track of what narrator Neeson was saying — not an effect Gibran would have wanted.
Viewed as part of the continuum of animation history, a work whose ancestors include Fantasia and, structurally, Heavy Metal (in which a girl is told stories by a glowing green ball), The Prophet works much better. The “in” to the more abstract and experimental sections is the bland Allers-designed frame, with such uninspired touches as Mustafa’s affable guard Halim (John Krasinski) harboring a crush on Kamila. I know it’s there to ease Disney/Pixar-reared kids into the good stuff, but every time an interlude finished and we trudged back into dull Allers territory, I could feel myself deflate and my attention slacken. The ideal presentation of Gibran’s work is still to be found on bookshelves worldwide (or perhaps in the 1974 album, read by Richard Harris), but as a calling card for eight indie animators, it gets the job done.