Roger Allers is the director of the independent animated film "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet,' but arguably his biggest claim to fame is co-directing "The Lion King," one of the most successful animated films of the modern era. So how does a large-scale Disney production compare to a smaller labor of love like this? "I think at its base it's the same process. You have to come up with a story that engages people and entertains people," he says in our recent video chat (watch it below).
"But of course working in the structure of a huge studio like Disney, that's a very different experience from this one. I can't call to mind how many hundreds of people worked on 'Lion King.' Not so on this one, so a lot of us were doing double-duty and triple-duty on this."
"The Prophet" is based on the 1923 book of prose poems by Kahlil Gibran, which Allers first read in college and has found himself revisiting ever since. Having known the material so well, he was eager to direct this adaptation, but it did pose unique challenges. "The first thing [producer Salma Hayek] said was, 'I want this to appeal and be accessible to all people from age five to 95.' And I thought, wow, that's a tall order," he admits, "How do I make a story that has these poems grow out of them … and how do I make something that's going to appeal to children as well as adults?"
Allers did it by telling a new story that frames the poems: that of a mute girl, Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis), who meets political prisoner Mustafa (Liam Neeson) and follows him as he imparts wisdom to his friends and neighbors following his supposed release from captivity. That wisdom is expressed in Gibran's poems, which were interpreted by eight different filmmakers, including Oscar-winner Joan C. Gratz, Oscar-nominees Tomm Moore and Bill Plympton, and Emmy-nominees Gaetan and Paul Brizzi, along with Mohammed Saeed Harib, Nina Paley, Joann Sfar and Michal Socha.
Those directors had complete creative freedom to interpret the poems, which was nerve-racking, but "that was also one of the things that was very appealing about this project was the idea that I would work with all these different people because I have so much respect for them," he explains. "Some of them are friends. A lot of them I hadn't met before … and I thought it was very exciting to bring different artistic visions to the film."
"The Prophet" has been nominated for three Annie Awards, which are presented by animation professionals who belong to the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA-Hollywood). It contends for Best Editing, Best Directing for Allers and Best Independent Animated Feature, which is a new category this year. "It's wonderful," says Allers of the recognition. "There are a lot of films out there, a lot of contenders and a lot of really worthy projects, so to get the nomination in that way is an honor."
The Oscars didn't have a category for Best Animated Feature in 1994 when "The Lion King" was released. He did earn a bid for Best Animated Short in 2006 for "The Little Matchgirl" and he has another chance now for "The Prophet." It's distributed by GKIDS, which has had a strong track record at the Oscars, with six Animated Feature nominations in the last four years alone, including two last year ("Song of the Sea" and "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya").
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Roger Allers photo credit: Eric Charbonneau/REX
"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" photo credit: GKIDS