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Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

Universal // PG // February 2, 2016
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 10, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet is a beautifully-constructed, ambitious piece of animation with an identity problem, uncertain as to which type of audience it should appeal to while adapting the author's collection of essays and poems. It'd like for younger viewers to be drawn to the capricious main character and her interactions with a town's citizens, offering a child's perspective into the topics touched upon by the titular scholar, while adult audiences should be entranced by the author's lyrical prose about philosophical and existential musings as they loosely connect with the story's events. Beautiful imagery and music of varying types accompany these episodic reflections, offering an eclectic visual experience that could engage both age groups and attention spans. Through the passionate intentions of producer Salma Hayek and coordinating director Roger Allers, this modified take on Gibran's celebrated text respects its casual pacing and segmented artistry, yet that ultimately produces a sluggish and inconsistent cinematic experience that inadequately engages both sides of the audience aisle.

The Prophet gathers together the works of Gibran and fits them within the story of young Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis), who hasn't spoken since the death of her father. She's a problematic young girl despite her silence, who frequently causes commotions in her seaside town that her mother, Kamila (Salma Hayek), must find ways of fixing between her shifts as a housekeeper. One day, Almitra pulls a fast one on her mother, following along to her place of work instead of going to school, and Kamila reluctantly allows her daughter to join her for the day. The young girl's mischievous nature leads her to meet Mustafa (Liam Neeson): Kamila's "boss", a writer and artist, and a political detainee within their city. It's here that the recognizable elements of Gibran's story emerge as Mustafa learns of his coming freedom, leading to him being escorted outside his domestic prison and toward a boat leading to his homeland, where he interacts with the local people and conveys meaningful stories about the things he sees and about the reverence they have for his work.

Given poise and emotional gravity by Liam Neeson, each of these verbalized stories segues into portions of Kahlil Gibran's book, accompanied by vivid and distinct animation that varies between each part. Ranging from blatantly surreal transformations of animals and people to the abstract realism of a tango dance, The Prophet deliberately shifts artistic gears between each one, giving the audience a cornucopia of styles -- minimalist, painterly, erratic pencil strokes -- to feast upon throughout the 80-minute story, and it's always stunning to look at between the cel-shaded narrative holding it all together. Unfortunately, the two storytelling methods clash with one another as a complete narrative, with the largely straightforward story of Mustafa's stroll through the coastal city and interactions with the townsfolk feeling interrupted by these avant-garde insertions, instead of enhanced by them. That's part of the intention, to transport the point-of-view into different aesthetic settings with specific tonal intentions, yet it's too jarring against the quaint profoundness of the poet's reflections amid his leisurely stroll to freedom.

For younger audiences or the impatient, the pacing and purpose of The Prophet will likely prove unsatisfying since the stunning imagery relies on engaging a wealth of underlying metaphors for it to carry any real meaning. The topics are as diverse in subject matter as they are within Gibran's works, ranging from motherhood and true love to the meaning of death, all heavier focuses that aren't handled in ways that are conducive to passive entertainment. In a way, The Prophet reminded me of Disney's Fantasia in structure and progressive rhythm, only on a much more highbrow -- and inaccessible -- level considering the insistently conceptual nature of each segment. Scenes of archery bows transforming into pregnant woman and dolled-up, stoic dancers running their bare feet on glass shards convey their respective points, but they don't resonate much beyond the surface, trying too hard to be creatively expressive without gelling together with the context of the Neeson-voiced texts.

This takes up a significant amount of The Prophet's energy, something that might not be expected considering the conventional, family-friendly emphasis on Almitra at first. Understandably so, her story feels tacked onto the rest of Mustafa's journeys traversing between the townspeople, reaching a predictable conclusion to her story as she builds an affinity for the political prisoner and his strife. Despite the handsome visualization of the location and the suitable voice work from the likes of Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, and Alfred Molina, there's something strangely inert about this narrative vehicle and its inability to enrich the poetic inclinations of the vignettes, creating an experience that cannot reach its intended thought-provoking heights. One's enjoyment of The Prophet will ultimately come down to how eager they are to latch onto the individual artistry of its disparate parts, not the complete package of Mustafa's journey and how he impacted those around him. While there's pure creative enjoyment to be had there, it doesn't work as the inspirational celebration of life and existence that it strives to become.

Video and Audio:

This doesn't come as a surprise considering their track record with their GKIDS animated releases, but it's hard to find fault anywhere in Universal's Blu-ray presentation of The Prophet, especially in the astonishing 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer. The scope of colors used in the animation is staggering, and the high-def transfer nails every single of of 'em down: the tans of skin tones and buildings; the blues of skies and waters; the reds of garments and lips; deep purples in a nighttime dance. Black an deep-brown levels in blocks of wavy hair are deep, suitable, and aware of elements within. Casting of shadows offers exquisite shading response, and the lines defining facial features and body frames are strong yet smooth. The caliber of detail present here goes above and beyond, with sharp graphical lines in some digital animation and natural and squiggly pencil strokes in other traditional artwork, all of which are impeccably represented within the transfer's razor-sharp clarity. Stunning.

The DTS-HD Master Audio track enjoys a similarly divine presentation in HD, presented in an engaged and sumptuous 5.1 design that embraces fine details throughout. Music naturally fills out the bulk of the surround activity; however, there are plenty of moments where the squawking and flapping of a bird, the acceleration of a car, and the chatter of a large crowd trail to the rear channels with pronounced separation. Atmospheric touches occasionally come into the artistic vignettes, such as the ruffle of wheat in a pile, but hey mostly operate around the clarity of the accompanying music, which sounds delightful no matter the genre and constantly retains an expansive surround presence. Liam Neeson's voice always comes across deep, clear, and resonant, while the higher pitch of Salma Hayek's voice never struggles with balance or audibility issues. There's no distortion to be heard, plenty of delicate nuances in near-silent scenes, and enough punch where necessary.

Special Features:

Animating The Prophet (15:07, 16x9 HD) sounds like a generic title for an extra, but it's actually rather specific in its focus. Numerous animators and technical staff, as well as director Roger Allers, delve deep into the technical aspects of bringing the film to life, from shading and layers to little details like a water-drop animation flowing off a mustache. It's a technical discussion peppered with enthusiasm for the project, and well worth a watch. An Interview With the Filmmakers (12:, 16x9 HD) cuts between conversations with Salma Hayek and Roger Allers as they discuss the process of making the film, its origin and development into the final product.

Another surprise is the Animatic (1:23:47, 16x9 HD) extra. The expectation was, perhaps, a scene or two of pre-visualization or concept drawings, but we've actually got the majority of the film -- save a few presumably unavailable sequences -- available in motion sketches here, which are quite beautifully done.

Final Thoughts:

The Prophet boasts gorgeous animation and thoughtful musings while adapting Kahlil Gibran's celebrated book, but it cannot quite marry the two within the story of Almitra, a young mute girl who interacts with the story's poet and political prisoner. Each of Mustafa's conversations transports the visual style somewhere new and inventive, each carrying their own meaning and tone in conjunction with a topic sparked by his engagement with the people around him, and the creativity involved with each is certainly to be commended. The versatility of the messages doesn't translate to a cohesive cinematic experience, though, causing the pensive vignettes to clash with the movement of the simple main plot, resulting in lackadaisical pacing that makes its 80-minute runtime feel much longer than that. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds faultless, and comes with a few unexpectedly pleasing extras, but this one's only worth a viewing or two for the artistry. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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