An inspired animated film brings Kahlil Gibran’s work to life in real style

Using a combination of words, pictures and music, this inventive, engaging animation offers a fitting tribute to fans and a light introduction to the curious.

A still from the animated film Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which is based on the poet’s 1923 essays. Courtesy Gulf Film LLC
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Director: Roger Allers (main feature, plus nine others)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis

Four stars

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet is a celebration. It's a celebration of the renowned Lebanese poet's best-loved work, a reflection on life, love, food and death that has been translated into 40 languages and read by millions since its publication in 1923.

It’s also a celebration of the art of animation, with 10 directors called on to add their own distinctive voices to an ensemble piece that uses a range of techniques, from crayon drawings to modern motion capture, to bring Gibran’s messages to the screen.

And it is a celebration of life, freedom and the human spirit – the core values that shine through Gibran’s flowery, philosophical words.

And is The Prophet worth celebrating in this way? Without question.

Translating a slim volume of 26 poems into a ­feature-length film sounds implausible. However, overseen artfully by writer-­director Roger Allers – whose CV includes Disney's Aladdin and The Lion King – this brave undertaking succeeds by devoting large chunks of screen time to quoting Gibran's words verbatim in a series of literary "lessons", linked thematically with a fresh framing plot specially created for the film and not in the poems.

We begin with Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson) – the Prophet of the title, shortened from Almustafa – being released after seven years under house arrest. He is granted his freedom on the condition that he be escorted from an unnamed Mediterranean village – a sunny market town where people of different religions mix freely – and board a waiting ship to return to his (also unidentified) home country. He is followed by a mischievous, mute, cute young girl called Almitra, who is in turn pursued by her long-suffering mother, Kamila (voiced by co-producer Salma Hayek).

On the trek from his hilltop retreat, Mustafa encounters reverential villagers seeking his advice, which sparks the nine themed extracts from Gibran’s work, each illustrated by a guest director.

Two of them feature the poet's words put to music, with tasteful compositions by Damien Rice (On Children) and a duet by Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard (On Love).

If this all sounds teeth-clenchingly twee, the quality and invention of not only Gibran's words, but also the animators' work make this worth seeing. Standouts include veteran cartoonist Bill Plympton's humorous, hand-drawn segment (On Eating & Drinking), Michal Socha's animated birds (On Freedom), and Emirati director Mohammed Saeed Harib's beautiful, naturalistic watercolour animation (On Good & Evil), which includes nods to Arabic calligraphy.

Yet it’s the contrast and variety of seeing each of these pieces together that makes one appreciate the craft more.

It is perhaps inevitable that some will find the structure frustrating and the messages overwrought and preachy. In many ways, your enjoyment of the film will depend on your feelings about the prospect of listening to Neeson prophesying airy platitudes – for example: “For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst”; “Work is love made visible”; and “Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself” – on top of arty animation.

But allow yourself to be swept along with it, don't dig too deep and you will find that it is a genuinely effective combination of words, pictures and music – an inventive fusion of mediums that in no way definitively captures the essence of The Prophet, but offers a fitting tribute for fans, a light introduction to the curious and an entertaining, engaging evening to everyone else.