Film Reviews

MECHANICAL EYE – <i>The Prophet</i> (2014)

MECHANICAL EYE – The Prophet (2014)

Claire Graman

September 24th, 2015

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I loved Fantasia as a child. Mesmerized by a wordless world, where dinosaurs, centaurs, and ghosts lived by the strings and horns of an unseen orchestra, I was disappointed a few years later when I attended a real symphony and saw no dancing colors in my head. What Fantasia is to classical music, The Prophet is to its spiritual philosophy. The animation will captivate you, but whether you will take the words of The Prophet home depends more on what the viewer is willing to bring than what the film has to offer.

Produced by Salma Hayek, The Prophet adapts a collection of prose-poems (coming soon to the public domain) by Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran. A poet named Mustafa (Liam Neeson) has been under house arrest for seven years on the fictional island of Orphalese for his popular, but possibly revolutionary, writing. He is guarded by a soldier, Halim (John Krasinski), and tended to by a housekeeper, Kamila (Salma Hayek). Our hero, however, is Kamila’s mischievous daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), who has been mute since her father’s death. Almitra befriends Mustafa the same day he receives unexpected news of his release. As he walks to the ship that will take him home, he shares his wisdom with the people he meets, such as: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” His words form animated shorts by different directors based on separate segments of the book. These poems inspire his listeners, but is he walking to his freedom or his doom?

Roger Allers directs The Prophet, but has trouble bringing the same natural flow as he did with The Lion King. Often the humor and sentimentality feel forced. In fact, the uneven combination of buffoonish comic moments with the film’s broader cosmic themes seems like a misfired attempt to appeal to both children and adults, but perhaps these categories aren’t as distinct as we like to think. A strength of the film comes from giving both young and adult characters complexity and growth. The vulnerable Almitra finds her inner strength. The wise Mustafa shows doubt. The cocky Halim learns humility. Talented voice acting also brings warmth and depth to the characters, which combats the uncanny combination of hand-drawn and CGI animation of the main story.

But the real attraction, of course, are the shorts by talented and diverse animators from around the world.

Michal Socha (Chick) blends beauty and fear in a short on freedom featuring vibrant birds. Bill Plympton (Idiots and Angels) lends his surreal talents to piece on eating and drinking. Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) creates a loving short on children reminiscent of silhouette puppetry. Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) interprets a piece on marriage as a sultry tango. Portland-based Joan Gratz (Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase) explores the nature of work through Impressionist brushstrokes. Mohammed Saeed Harib (Freej) shows the nature of a good and evil with watercolor animals. Finally, animators Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (the Firebird sequence of Fantasia 2000) convey the ambiguity of death through a dance of light and dark. Perhaps the best, however, was a Klimt-inspired segment on love by Tomm Moore, whose exquisite Irish fairy tales (The Secret of Kells, The Song of the Sea) have taken up the enchanting work of Hayao Miyazaki. Depending on the artist (with tracks by Damien Rice, Glen Hansard and Yo-Yo Ma), the music accentuates or undercuts its accompanying animation.

Overall, the ambition and love that went into The Prophet deserve praise, but the film’s surface holds more depth than its essence.

The Prophet continues its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Claire Graman is an English PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. She studies history, film, and when the two collide. Mechanical Eye is an irregular column in which she provides critical analyses of films screening locally.

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