A Mickey Mouse of a Messiah

Kahlil Gibran’s pedantic classic gets the cartoon treatment

(Courtesy Gkids)

The animated version of Khalil GIbran’s The Prophet features the voice of Liam Neeson.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet—along with The Little Prince and perhaps Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha—is one of those ghastly books of bromides that gets way more love than it deserves. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1923, the compendium of 26 prose poems has never been out of print, and has sold nearly 10 million copies in America alone. During the freewheeling 1960s, when Gibran’s proto-New Age platitudes were particularly in vogue, the book occasionally sold 5,000 copies a week, and it remains stubbornly popular—as does its spirit, which can be located most acutely in the messianic ethos of Silicon Valley.

(2/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Roger Allers
Starring: Liam Neeson,Salma Hayek and John Krasinski
Running time: 84 min.

But The Prophet has never been adapted for the big screen before, and that’s probably because the book, which clocks in at 96 pages, doesn’t have much of a plot. In it, an oracle named Almustafa is about to board a ship and depart from the city of Orphalese, where he has lived for the past 12 years. Before he embarks on his journey, however, the townspeople gather before him one last time and entreat him to impart some final words of wisdom. (For instance, in response to a question about the nature of work, he asks them: “Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?” That line has always made me feel that Gibran didn’t get reeds.)

That’s about it. So naturally, the animated film version, called, in full, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, contains quite a few embellishments. Written and directed by Roger Allers, whose past credits include such Disney classics as The Lion King and Aladdin, it’s a saccharine but at times surprisingly touching compendium of its own. Although it seems to have been made with children in mind—it’s rated PG—The Prophet will likely appeal to all ages, especially baby boomers who may fondly recall dropping acid to Gibran’s musings in college and would like to experience a kind of soft flashback. The movie contains short, abstract segments, each of which was created by an animator who interpreted a passage from the book. Sometimes the segments are sung, and sometimes they are recited by Mustafa (the “Al” has been excised, giving him the same name as the wise father of Lion King), who is voiced by a soothingly soporific Liam Neeson (seriously, he should narrate a sleep app—his disembodied voice is amazing).

Mustafa is a painter and poet—like the Lebanese-born Gibran—who for the past seven years has been imprisoned in a small cottage outside Orphalese for his supposedly treasonous writings. One day he is told by the local authorities that he will be released from confinement and sent back to his home country. Along the way to the boat, he is stopped by admiring townsfolk who view him as a kind of messiah. Gibran was infatuated with Jesus, and, indeed, bad things do happen to Mustafa, who functions in the film as a kind of martyr.

As Mustafa ambles through town, the villagers ask him for advice, which is where the lines from the book—and the abstract sequences—come into play. The movie achieves the kind of rhythm of an opera, alternating between arias of animated poetry and the recitative of normal speech. Often, Mustafa’s musings come unbeckoned—and mostly feel pedantic, like a kind of philosophical mansplaining. You get the gist of what he’s saying, but at a certain point—near the third quarter of the film, I’d say—the prophet’s ambiguous words start to grate. “Sometimes people talk when they cease to be at peace with their thoughts,” Mustafa says late in the movie. “But there are those who have the truth within them, only they tell it not in words.”

You wish the prophet would take that idea to heart.

A Mickey Mouse of a Messiah