Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet ★★★★

This is an animated cliff's notes take on Kahlil Gilbran's famed poetry collection, not all that different from the book itself as it weaves a basic wraparound tale about a philosopher heading to a boat that will return him to his home country, musing wisely about a number of life's broad topics with those he encounters along the way. Aside from the animation (an attractive blend of minimal watercolor settings and what looks like lightly computer-rendered characters), the movie tries to aim this as kids by including a little girl and her mother (voiced by producer Salma Hayek, who seems to have been the one pushing this to get made in the first place). There's some pointless cutesy comedy with her and animals and a blustery, Cogsworth-ish police captain but not too much that it takes away from the spiritual power at the film's heart. The real sneak attack is casting Liam Neeson as the prophet Mustafa. He does most of the work here reciting passages from the book, and bravo for choosing him. If "Taken" opened our eyes to how paternally badass he could be, this movie opened my eyes to what a soothing, soulful brogue he has. He's always had it, of course, and has even done voice-over work before (as Aslan, in the English dub of "Ponyo", and as the cops in "The Lego Movie"), but I never realized just how valuable it could be. I suddenly want to find out if he's recorded any audio books and listen to them immediately. He's really gone the distance in his career, thinking back on it. Seems like he's tried just about everything by now, and succeeded on all fronts.

In addition to Neeson's hypnotic soliloquies, and the celestial beauty of Gilbran's essays themselves, the other reason this should be considered essential viewing is that each time Mustafa stops to wax philosophic for a while, the film drifts into a different famous animator's interpretation of the words. Unique artists like Bill Plympton, Tomm Moore ("Song of the Sea"), Nina Paley ("Sita Sings the Blues"), Joann Sfar ("The Rabbi's Cat"), and other international talents compose sometimes lyrical, sometimes abstract sequences that retain the gentle tonal throughline of the whole movie while captivating with indelible imagery and the artful liberty of short film form. It's pretty reminiscent of "Fantasia", assigning works of classic art to distinct animation styles. As a huge fan of those films, I may be inclined to over-state the effect of this one, so your mileage may vary.

But it's a noble, lovely endeavor of a film no matter how you approach it. Notwithstanding some minor comic relief, the movie doesn't condescend to its intended children audience, nor does is it aiming to just divert kids with wacky mania for 90 minutes like other big screen cartoons. Hayek and "Lion King" director Roger Allers intended this as an educational tool to provoke thought and wonder in younger viewers, and also maybe translate a book that meant a great deal to them personally into their own medium in order to share it with new audiences. Like something out of Studio Ghibli or anything really from animation film distributors GKIDS (they pick up great alternative animation like this all the time), "The Prophet" is a much different kind of animated movie, an all-around quieter, wiser, more adventurously designed work that may not land the big laughs, big drama, and big entertainment of a Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks blockbuster, but will no doubt make a longer impression.

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