STUDIO: Lions Gate
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 91 Minutes
• Commentary by the director and producer
• Making-of featurette
• Storyboard-to-film comparison
• Interactive games
• Trailers

The Pitch

“It’s The Greatest Story Ever Told! Just to check, that is the one about Jesus, right?”

The Humans

Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Richard E. Grant, Ian Holm, William Hurt.

The Nutshell

It’s like The Passion of the Christ. But, you know, for kids!

This is how you can tell Mel Gibson co-produced this movie.  And they’re saluting Jesus.

The Lowdown

Not for nothing, but I really feel like a dick writing this review. Now, let me tell you why.

You look up the word “honorable” in the dictionary, and dammit, you should find a picture of all the men and women who worked on The Miracle Maker. Watching the DVD special features, I get the feeling that everyone who worked on this film truly wanted to create something beautiful. Note the following:

1) Project begins twelve years ago as the joint collaboration between Russian puppet-makers and British animators and theologians. Their goal: Create a straight-forward, no-frills telling of the Gospels that uses stop-motion puppetry and subtle watercolor-inspired (inspired by the art of Ashley Potter) animation to highlight the beauty in both man and in God. Don’t let the Icon Productions tag fool you; this is no bombastic Passion of the Christ, but a sensitive, uplifting story of Jesus’ message and his sacrifice for mankind’s sins.
2) The animation process is not limited to stop-motion puppetry and cel animations, but state-of-the-art digital and animatronic work is done to further enhance the quality of the work.
3) In 2000, after years of this painstaking animation, the filmmakers nab a cast of vocal talents that includes Ralph Fiennes (as Jesus), Alfred Molina, Miranda Richardson, Ian Holm, Richard E. Grant, William Hurt, and Julie motherfucking Christie. And these actors, moved by the enthusiasm of the animators and the inherent drama in the story, give it their all; even William Hurt doesn’t half-ass it, and I’ve seen him in plenty of live-action roles where I doubt a shovel to the head could rouse feeling in him.
4) Finally, in order to make the film accessible to audiences all over the world, it’s re-worked and re-dubbed to fit numerous languages, including Russian, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Welsh. There are many more, but we’re running out of time as is.
5) Oh yeah, that puppetry group? It’s called Christmas Films, and it started up as an artistic response to the oppression artists faced in the Soviet Union. This film, besides giving them an exposure they’d never really had before, represented all the ideals of freedom and tolerance that had been denied to them.

Frankly, I’m surprised they don’t claim this as an autobiography since the toils of these guys make Christ look a lazy hippie. There’s a lack of guile on display that’s refreshing…

…and more than a little awkward when you consider how bad this flick is. I can’t think of a film I’ve wanted to like more in recent years than this one (maybe Superman Returns), but I just can’t. It is truly fucking terrible. I think it fails on every level…wait a tick, yes, I’m sure it fails on every level. Badly voiced, poorly animated (in both departments), and narratively and thematically sluggish.

A still from Michael Mann’s Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at that last part first. This film runs 91 minutes long. At that, it is overlong. I think if it ran a lean 45 min., then you might have something, but it’s fatally overlong as is. I could barely sit through it, and I can’t blame the ADD; I was held rapt by Zodiac two days before this one, and that runs a full hour and seven minutes longer. Odd comparison, I know, but roll with it. For some odd reason, the filmmakers decided that focusing on Jesus would be too radical an idea, so we get to see everything through the eyes of a sickly young girl and her boring-ass family. And their stuff drags. And drags. And drags. Gee, d’ya think Jesus will help the girl? And shucks, will the family then grow conflicted in their belief in him versus the anti-Jesus rulings of the government? No points for guessing. It just doesn’t work, and it takes the focus off Christ. Not that shifting it back in this situation would help—the “no-frills” approach on Jesus comes off as “simple” rather than “interesting.” Here at CHUD, our love for The Last Temptation of Christ is fairly well documented (buy it here!!), and where that film manages to use the text of the Scriptures fairly accurately (even if, performance-wise, it’s more naturalistic) while making Christ himself a fascinating and psychologically complex character, here we get the text, and that’s all. No bounce, no play in his character. He’s just one-dimensionally beatific, and even Lenny Nero can’t make him intriguing.

Speaking of Lenny, I know I said the voice actors gave 100%. I hold to that. Here’s the problem: all the effort that went into performance is squandered by the shitty animation work. That’s right, I said “shitty.” For all the talk about how inventive and revolutionary the puppet-work is, it comes off like action figures crudely moving around in a Rankin-Bass knockoff. Motions are jerky and “off (note any time a character grabs something. It just appears in their hand),” and character facial articulation is almost nonexistent. Mouths move, and each character has a specific “look,” but don’t expect a whole lot of variety in expressions. If you’re a Nicole Kidman fan, you should be fine, but all others, beware. Save for Jesus. He has a happy face and a sad face. Whoop-ti-fucking-do. Not that the cel-animation fares any better. I’ve seen Flash stuff that’s sharper and more inventive than what’s on display here. This is bargain basement work, and I suspect it was used primarily to cut the stop-motion guys some slack; whenever we go into a setting that would be extremely technically demanding for stop-motion work, such as the three temptations of Christ by Satan, it switches over to crappy cel work.

"Do I look like Angelina Jolie when I do this, Jesus?"

So back to the voice work. Imagine you record the Royal Shakespeare Company doing a dramatic reading of Macbeth. And it’s a good piece, capturing all the drama even without visuals. Then imagine two stoned teenagers making G.I. Joe action figures act out the recording. It would look fucking ridiculous, which (surprise surprise) is exactly the effect achieved here. You hear this very driven and emotive voice work, but you see it all coming from inexpressive, lumbering plastic creations. So no matter how good the actors are, and they are quite good at times (Grant’s John the Baptist being the standout), they can’t overcome the ineptness of the visuals.

“Ineptness.” It’s a harsh word, but I feel it’s most apt in describing this film. It just dies on screen, and I think it’s unfair to call this a “kid’s film” in order to skate over the many problems on display; I like to think most kids are pretty savvy, and I tell you, the animation quality alone here will have the average five-year old clamoring for the Looney Tunes. I just wish it wasn’t so. Because here’s a film made on nothing but good intentions. But you know how the saying goes, so I won’t waste your time.

God, I feel like such a dick.

The Package

The picture quality on this bad boy is decent but unspectacular; a bit of grain here, a hint of scratch (not snatch, you cheeky monkeys) there. I’m beginning to think that “Digitally Mastered” means jack-all. The sound, however, was surprisingly effective. Full-bodied, immersive, and only in Dolby 5.1! I heard the passion of the Christ here, if nothing else.

Ralph Fiennes:  Voices Jesus one day, then nails a stewardess on the plane the next.  Truly this man is the King of Kings!

The DVD cover has Jesus preaching to his masses over top the gaggle of vocal talent involved. It is, and I swear I’m not trying to make a joke here, uninspiring. It does have a shiny slip-cover that looks like a rainbow if the light is right, which pleases the shiny-things-loving Cro-Magnon in me.

Concerning the special features: most of them are bloody useless. Storyboard comparisons only really work if the final product looks better than the storyboard. Otherwise, they’re not such a hot idea. This flick? Shouldn’t have had ‘em. The “It is Written” feature is a pop-up video deal, ‘cept it mostly focuses on the Bible passages each scene refers to, and the “Learning from Jesus” is a trivia/info/quiz type of thing that were I three and not an atheist Jew I still would have thought was lame. Add to those a commentary track from the director and producer that’s practically over-flowing with dead-air, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a special edition DVD! Yawn. The only saving grace here is the documentary. Narrated by Mr. Fantastic himself, Ioan Gruffudd, this 30 minute piece was infinitely more compelling than the actual film. It packed a lot of good info. into its thirty minutes, from the history behind the film, through pre-and post-production, and the challenges that accompanied the making, getting interviews from pretty much everyone who worked on the piece. They all seem so shame. Shame about the film…

Honestly? Not a fan of this one. And it has nothing to do with religion or faith or anything like that: this was just a straight-up crap-tavaganza. It failed on every level, and the special features, outside of the documentary, don’t do a good enough job of sweetening the deal for a blind buy. But if you’re a Jesus completist, then far be it from me to sway you away. Oh, I am a rhyming boy today!

But I still feel like a douche for bashing it.

"And I said, ‘No stars!  No Ralph Fiennes, no Ian Holm, no William Hurt! I want to-‘  Dammit, not again!"
3.5 out of 10