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Review: ‘Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet’ Opens Annecy 2015

The new animated feature written and directed by ‘The Lion King’s Roger Allers, which includes work from nine of the biggest names in animation, wows the opening night audience at the 2015 Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

When I first learned that Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet had been transformed into an animated feature length film, I had one simple question. How? Like many, I first read Gibran’s collection of twenty-six prose poetic essays as an undergraduate in college. Gibran’s dense meditations on the human condition, covering topics such as love, friendship, work, marriage, children, and houses, are indeed bewitching and esoteric.

Still, The Prophet taps into a human vein, as its ongoing global popularity attests. For generation after generation, since its publication in 1923, people love reading it. In the home of a dear friend in Laguna Beach, Ca, I remember her mother always had a worn copy in clear view. The book was always moving around the living room, constantly being re-read. So, how does one take a collection of deep poetic essays covering a large swath of the human experience and transform them into a movie? On the opening night of this year’s Annecy International Festival of Animation I was very fortunate to screen a response wonderfully articulated by Salma Hayek, Clark Peterson, and Roger Allers.

As a film adaptation, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet not only conveys the essence of Gibran’s art and voice, but also convincingly shows that animation was the medium best suited for such an endeavor. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that you have The Lion King’s Roger Allers as both supervising director and screenwriter. But factor in the vision of producers Salma Hayek and Clark Peterson and something wonderful really did happen.

Although the premise of Gibran’s work is quite simple, it’s by no means a script waiting to be turned into a film -- on his way to board a ship home, the prophet Almustafa is stopped by a group of people with whom he then discusses a vast rage of human issues. Nevertheless, Allers’ script, which incorporates Hayek’s idea of introducing a child character, adequately transforms a tangible book into a visual experience for everyone. The framing story of Almitra, a child struggling to cope with the death of her father, is the accessible point of entry into the prophet Mustafa’s philosophical world. Refusing to speak and causing trouble about town with her seagull companion, Almitra is clearly the hook for younger audiences. Mustafa, on the other hand, is not only the metaphysical character of the original, but also becomes somewhat of an ideological dissident in Allers’ story. His journey to the ship, guided by the local police, is a path potentially leading to his death. A deeper layer of story. Something for the adults. Overall, a good balance between the comic low of Almitra’s antics and the tragic high of Mustafa’s life is maintained. How both young and old respond to each element of the framing story will undoubtedly be varied. But neither is so overcooked as to leave a bad taste in your mouth. And as Almitra follows Mustafa on his path toward the harbor and deals with her own emotional issues, you are treated to a kaleidoscopic sequence of unique animated vignettes.

For each essay, Peterson’s idea of applying a Fantasia-like vignette model to render the individual prose poems was spot on. Better still, each segment was assigned to a cast of international artists. The result is a journey through the creative minds of animators such as Joan Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, and Joann Sfar. Each time Mustafa stops and speaks you’re immersed in new worlds where the laws of physics often give way to fluid and morphing images of landscapes, animals, and bodies as Gibran’s words are read. Quickly it becomes evident why animation was the best medium for a film adaptation. Just as the visual arts, poetry and philosophy deal in abstracts, similes, and metaphor. Thus the unbound nature of animation was the only way to visually bring Gibran’s words and emotion to life. Some of these segments are even further blessed with the musical talents of Yo-Yo Ma and Damien Rice. Rather than go into every individual segment here, let me just say that, in using her signature technique of clay painting, Joan Gratz notably adds a mesmerizing layer of three-dimensionality to the earth she depicts in her translation of the essay On Work. Mohammed Saeed Harib succeeds in his desire to make the audience “dive into a watercolor painting” in his vision for the essay On Good & Evil. And one cannot overlook the hand-drawn style of Bill Plympton, of course, in On Eating & Drinking. The overall effect is an animated feature that embeds a sequence of animated short films, shorts in the sense that each director was encouraged to experiment in merging their creative voice with that of Gibran’s. But such direction definitely results in the creation of individual works of art, and audiences will thus find some more pleasing than others.

For the obvious reasons of time and story, only eight of Gibran’s essays are included, and deciding on which poems to use must have been difficult. But Roger Allers once again shows his innate ability to guide the ship. The task of interweaving multiple and varied artistic voices and styles while simultaneously preserving Gibran’s art was a gamble in many respects; it could have easily turned into an unwieldy multi-faced monster. But this film always had one thing going for it. The success of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, I think, is that it was clearly a labor of love. During Annecy Peterson recounted the film’s long journey: from the original live action concept, to negotiating with Gibran’s village in Lebanon that owns the rights to his work, to a budget that basically depended on the kindness of friends and interested artists. And the artists involved in this film are impressive; besides those already mentioned: Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, Tomm More, Michal Socha, Gabriel Yared, Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, Alfred Molina, Frank Langella and John Rhys-Davies. In the end, it was the gravity of Gibran’s words that attracted this ensemble. Before even coming onto the project, everyone seemed to have a prior connection to Gibran, whether through Lebanese culture or simply the inspiration and contemplation that results from reading his words. Consequently, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet is not only an animated film that audiences of all ages can watch, but also a visually delightful experience.