Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 0; Sex 8/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
Like millions of readers, I have loved selected portions of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, often using “On Marriage” in wedding liturgies and “On Children” with parents. Actress Salma Hayek apparently not only loves this book of Middle Eastern wisdom but also decided to produce a movie based on it. She secured Lion King’s director Roger Allers as the over-all director, and then for each of the 8 poems (chosen from the 26 in the book) she selected animators to interpret them. Their eight little segments could stand alone as animated shorts, but joined together with a back story and enhanced by the stirring score of Gabriel Yared, they will remind veteran film lovers of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
A quick survey of the eight artists and their contributions:
Michal Socha, in the cautionary “On Freedom,” depicts birds becoming entrapped in birdcages, and this changes into a tree that morphs into a wickerman that transforms into an even more intriguing image.
Nina Paley in “On Children” uses a striking style of black figures resembling the shadow puppets from Indonesia. In one segment a pregnant female archer shoots an arrow into the abdomen of another pregnant woman, thus launching into the world another human being.
Joann Sfar depicts “On Marriage” as a tango performed by a bare-footed but formally attired couple. (This is the only one that disappointed me because, instead of looking like a Middle Easter bride and groom, they appeared to be a sophisticated couple from Paris
Joan C. Gratz in “On Work” shows us a farmer harvesting with a scythe, this changing into other shapes, and eventually into hands carving a toy boat and giving it into younger hands as we hear that “work is love made visible.”
Bill Plympton in his short on “On Eating and Drinking” appeals to our appetites. His crayon drawings, beginning with a head ingesting rainbow-like food, then morphing into a plowman and his horse in a field that in turn changes to grain and many other forms, appears crude, even childish, but it is effective.
Tomm Moore (Secret of Kells, one of my favorite recent animated films!) in “On Love” combines Celtic and Middle-Eastern art that at times makes us think we are watching the lovers through a kaleidoscope. My favorite of all!
Mohammed Saeed Harib in “On Good and Evil” drawing in the tradition of Japanese ink paintings, uses bird, tree, vine and seed images.
The twin brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi not only drew a maiden or nymph for “On Death,” but also were the storyboard artists for the whole film. (You might recall that they created “The Firebird” segment in Disney’s Fantasia 2000).
Liam Neeson, who also voices the character Mustafa, reads the poems for each of the above sequences. To make such a philosophical book appealing to children, director Roger Allers greatly expanded the slight framing device of Gibran’s book. The connecting story, set in the seas-side town of Orphalese, involves a mischievous little girl named Almitra whose mother Kamila (voice of Salma Hayek) is the housekeeper for Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a poet/philosopher, held under house arrest for the past seven years because his writings are considered seditious. Since the trauma of her father’s death two years earlier the little girl has not spoken, but her lack of voice has not deterred her from getting into all kinds of trouble with the villagers.
One day she follows her mother to work, and soon the poet befriends her, showing her the power of the imagination to make even a prisoner free. But, he warns, in the first of the illustrated poems, one must not worship one’s freedom and thus become its captive. There quickly follows the insightful “On Children.” A large paunched Sergeant (Alfred Molina) arrives to announce that Mustafa is being released immediately, and that he and the guard Halim (John Krasinski) are to deliver him to the ship that has just docked at the wharf below. On the way Mustafa is greeted by the adoring villagers, thus providing opportunities for the recitation of the other six poems. He also is able to smooth things over with “my new friend” Almitra and the villagers whom she has wronged so that she will be looked after when he is gone. He even instills hope and confidence in Halim who has harbored an unexpressed love for Kamila. The people thank Mustafa for his writings not just by their praise and words of thanks, but also by showering him with food for the journey. They insist on accompanying the party to the ship.
Almita senses that the Sergeant’s story about the ship’s taking Mustafa back to his native land does not ring true, but she is not able to convey this to her friend. Her fears are borne out when the Sergeant halts before the grim prison where so many dissidents have been shot. A riot breaks out when the people realize that their hero is not about to be set free. Inside the prison the Pasha tries to get Mustafa to sign a paper renouncing his work, but he refuses. That night with the help of Hamil and Kamila, Almitra is able to climb up to a window and peer down at her imprisoned friend. She finds her voice again as they converse, Mustafa assuring her that life and death are one—and asking that she do him a favor. Go back to his cottage and rescue his art and writings before they can be destroyed. Thus we have a race between the three to gather up the precious works before the Sergeant and his soldiers can arrive. What happens to Mustafa is beautifully depicted, fully in keeping with the intention of the film’s audience of both children and adults.
The varied art is splendid, no doubt some of it appealing to different persons according to their tastes. You need not worry that the children will not “get” the poems, the art itself being entertaining. Small viewers can enjoy the adventuresome Almitra now and return to the poems when they are older, having at least been introduced to them. Some of Gibran’s thoughts are a bit too New Age for me, but most contain a measure of wisdom and stimulation. His caution against deifying Freedom is very pertinent, and the thought that all work—not just that of artists and poets– has meaning takes us back to the similar teaching of Martin Luther that all believers are called to be priests, not just those whom the church ordains. As noted earlier, the film is greatly enhanced by composer Gabriel Yared, Yo-Yo Ma’s lending his cello to “On Death” brings out its bitter sweetness. This is a film filled with such beautiful art that I look forward to owning it on video so as to be able to return to it again and again. I think you might feel this way too after seeing it.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.