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Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
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by Jay Seaver

"A decent frame around some amazing pictures."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Khlail Gibran's The Prophet" is a labor of love for producer Salma Hayek, and like a fair number of those projects, it's got some rough edges as the desire to realize a complicated project within a window of opportunity may have taken priority over waiting until it could be perfect. Or maybe not; the production may have been perfectly smooth, and some spots are certainly excellent enough to justify the enthusiasm for the film.

The main story is okay. It introduces a trouble-making little girl, Almitra, who has squawked to a seagull but not spoken to anybody else since her father died two years ago. When her mother Kamila (voice of Salma Hayek) is not trying to wrangle her, she's the housekeeper for Mustafa (voice of Liam Neeson), a poet and painter who has been under house arrest for seven years. On the day Almitra follows her mother to work, a man from the government comes to tell Mustafa he is being set free and returned to his home country - although Almitra hears different.

Don't get me wrong, this framing piece isn't bad; it's got a nice voice cast with Hayek, Neeson, Quvenzhané Wallis, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, and John Rhys-Davies. The Lion King's Roger Allers directs, and while he doesn't have the same resources he did with Disney, the mostly hand-drawn images move smoothly, the storytelling is clear, and the characters expressive. When he gets to take a flight of fancy, it's neat to see, as are the humorous moments when he can stretch his cartooning muscles. Sometimes I suspect that he has a hard time connecting the heavy and heady material with an intended young audience - this is the story of a man who is a political prisoner in part for publishing philosophy, and trying to present that in a way palatable to kids Almitra's age can leave it feeling like an introductory lecture to older viewers.

The good news, though, is that you can look at that material not necessarily as the main thrust of the film, but as a skeleton to which short films that adapt essays on specific subjects are attached. There are eight of those, each by a different director, most working around a Liam Neeson voiceover but a couple, notably "On Love", transformed into songs. The narration is chewy and sometimes challenging, especially starting off with "On Freedom" - that's not a concept often presented with room for nuance or debate, and tackling that sets the bar high.

It's got some amazing imagery in it, though, courtesy of Michal Socha, an up-and-coming animator who puts strikingly designed birds in cages that become a sort of wicker man before things transform into yet another great image. Many of the other segments come from people with whom fans of independent animation should be fairly familiar: Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) is unmistakable with "On Children", which also includes one of the film's most intriguing images, overlaying dividing cells atop the image of a patrician god. Joann Sfar illustrates "On Marriage" with a tango. Bill Plympton's style is unmistakable in "On Eating and Drinking", although it fits in with the larger film impressively. Ireland's Tomm Moore blends Celtic and Middle-Eastern shapes in "On Love". Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, and the Brizzi brothers are less well-known now, but their segments "On Work", "On Good and Evil", and "On Death" all deliver. There's not a disappointing one in the bunch.

Not having watched the film with a stopwatch, I'm not sure what the balance of conventional narrative and the much more abstract pieces is. It doesn't much matter - the framing story is not bad by any means, and any one of the eight vignettes could be popped out of the film and seen as the sort of animated short that gets one excited on its own. Together, they are at the very least one of the most unique animated films audiences will have a chance to see this year.

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originally posted: 08/03/15 23:34:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Maui Film Festival For more in the 2015 Maui Film Festival series, click here.

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  07-Aug-2015 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Feb-2016


  DVD: 02-Feb-2016

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