As a screen star, especially in his recent action renaissance, Liam Neeson has proven to be as much a voice as a body or a face. His low, slightly gravelly intonation and terse dialogue delivery is as unmistakable a component of his persona as the pistol whips and lumbering physicality. So, as the voice for the title character in Roger Allers’s animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s slim but iconic collection of prose poems, The Prophet, he instantly stands out. The titular prophet, an endlessly generating fount of wisdom for his unenlightened peers, is an incarcerated poet named Mustafa, who launches into humbling oratories on the interconnected nature of the human race and the natural world whenever given the slightest of opportunities, digressions that take form as non-narrative animated segments set to Neeson’s voiceover. Because of this frequent separation of the actor’s voice and his character drawing, it’s hard to escape the impression of a metatext: The Prophet basically amounts to a series of instances of Neeson—the Bronson-esque badass repackaged as a smooth-talking life coach—schooling the audience in pop-transcendentalist philosophy, indulged as excuses for Allers and his distinguished team of artists to unleash torrents of abstract animation.
The conceptual foundation gets odder. Each monologue sequence was guest-directed by a noted name from the contemporary animation world, while the framing story that justifies this variety show was handled by Allers, a veteran who brings his writing and directing chops from vintage Disney films (The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Emperor’s New Groove, from which various instances of running on rooftops and exaggerated villainous figures have been recycled). The result is a hybrid of old-school animated storytelling and a multiplicity of more experimental new-school approaches, each practice somewhat awkwardly jousting for attention.
Gibran’s source material concerns an exiled wise man who, upon learning he’ll be escorted back to his homeland, lavishes the residents of the country he’s leaving with the accumulated sagacity of his years in detention, spontaneously doling out horoscope-like streams of thought to anyone given to pettiness or hypocrisy. Allers’s new production keeps that structure, but adds to it a narrative involving a mute young girl named Almitra (voiced, when she climactically speaks, by Quvenzhané Wallis), who admires Mustafa and, after being inspired by his idea that humans are spirits uncontained by bodies or borders, follows him up until his unjust execution via cruelly repressive state officials. (The film’s treatment of this death, in keeping with its glass-half-full New Age-isms, is one of its most poetic touches.)
Well-meaning though they may be, Allers’s contributions feel stale; by the time Almitra revives her voice (willfully withheld, we’re told, after the crushing loss of her father), it feels like an afterthought, a flimsy climax meant as yet another confirmation of Mustafa’s life-changing powers. It’s also a counterintuitive gesture: The efforts the film makes to shade in Almitra repeatedly divert attention from its real draw, which is the technically extraordinary and aesthetically lavish segments of Allers’s collaborators. Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea) contributes his retina-soothing amalgams of concentric circles to Mustafa’s lecture on love; Bill Plympton (Cheatin’) supplies a dose of his distinctive, crudely drawn crayon chaos to “On Eating and Drinking”; Joan Gratz (Lost and Found) goes wild morphing impasto in “On Work”; Mohammed Saeed Harib (Freej) brings Japanese ink painting to “On Good & Evil”; and, in visualizing the Prophet’s conception of childbirth, Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) stumbles upon the film’s most indelible image, a two-dimensional figurine of a pregnant woman shooting an arrow through the mid-section of another pregnant woman to launch human life into the ether.
Pushed along by Neeson saying things like “only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing,” these trippy and totally satisfying segments offer a consummate sampler platter of the bounty of state-of-the-art animation currently available to Hollywood as alternatives to the established house styles of the major studios. That The Prophet may encourage habit-based viewers to broaden their tastes even a little bit after watching the film more than makes up for the occasional kinks in its overall narrative design.