By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
An animated passion project shepherded to the screen by Salma Hayek, the hugely promising Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet arrives in theaters as a decidedly mixed bag. Gorgeous sequences of highly individualized, hand-drawn animation from some of the industry greats (including Bill Plympton, Song of the Sea director Tomm Moore, and Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley) get swarmed by a trite, clumsy, atonal central story directed by Roger Allers. The film plays like an old-school musical where the ecstatic dance sequences get overshadowed by an insufferable script.
In a mid-20th century Lebanese village, a mischievous mute girl named Almitra and her widowed mother (Hayek) take care of the imprisoned poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson, fulfilling his contractual obligation to appear in every movie), a mild-mannered folk hero condemned by the country’s government. When Mustafa gets released from prison for deportation, Almitra follows close behind as he walks among his devotees one last time, reciting his poems for an increasingly intense and adoring crowd.
It’s in these poetry sequences that the impressive roster of hand-drawn animation gods comes roaring off the bench, and some of these sequences are true showstoppers. Unfortunately, they’re dragged down by the bland, third-rate Don Bluth visuals and clunky dialogue (“We feed the body, but you…you feed the soul!”, etc.) of the Mustafa/Almitra story, which features more distracting celebrity voices than a Studio Ghibli re-dub.
Speaking of Studio Ghibli, the bullied protagonist of The Prophet pales in comparison to the complex young female heroine of When Marnie Was There. Almitra lost her voice when her father died, but gains it back by the conclusion of the film. Because of poetry, the end. Save yourself the extra hour and wait for the inevitable YouTube supercut of the Plympton/Moore/Paley et al. scenes.