The Greatest Story Ever Told as a stop motion animated film aimed at kids? What, did Rankin and Bass suddenly get religion? Seriously, it seems odd that two items that you won't normally associate as successfully comingling would attempt to come together to retell the tale of the Bible's most famous face. Yet that's exactly what happened when a group of likeminded British and Russian filmmakers got together to tell the story of Jesus' Passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. The results, five years in the painstaking making, are called The Miracle Maker, and it has to be said that this is one unusual piece of theology. The art and its realization are amazing. The story, sadly, fails to fully live up to the ingenuity of the approach (and, YES, we know we are talking about Christ's last days on Earth). The result is an uneven effort which often dazzles and occasionally underperforms.
We all know the story of how Jesus came to be crucified. Held up as the Son of God and considered the King of Kings by his followers, an angry Rome (and an equally irate Jewish leadership) wanted the simple carpenter punished for such blasphemy. Bribing one of his 12 disciples, Judas, Jesus is outed, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Left for dead, he is buried only to rise after three days. The miracle of his resurrection has long been considered an act of grace so important as to wipe away the sins of Man. Here, we see this entire plotline played out through the tender eyes of Tamar, the daughter of Jarius from the Book of Luke. After witnessing first hand Jesus' miracle working capability, she follows the leader as he earns admirers and enemies.
The Miracle Maker is an interesting approach to the story of Jesus. It wants to be matter of fact, portraying the Son of God as an ordinary man given over to extraordinary circumstances. It also wants to paint him as an amazing Messiah capable of all manner of astonishing feats. It takes a child's perspective while still mimicking much of the actual Gospels. Jesus' Passion is also present, though obviously not as graphic as Mel Gibson's fierce fundamentalist screed, and the entire experience is one of solemnity and seriousness. So there has to be something that differentiates it from all the other Savior stories - and in this case, it's animation. The use of 3D stop motion is excellent, bringing a real "nativity scene come to life" ideal to the proceedings. We get caught up in the invention, letting the novelty fill in the necessary narrative and nuance blanks. By the end, we really are involved in the storyline, sympathize with this carpenter turned scapegoat turned religious cornerstone, and wonder at why more movies don't emply this kind of approach as means of making the old fashioned feel fresh and new.
This doesn't mean that the movie is without flaws, however. The "child's perspective" does dumb things down a little bit, making Jesus less complicated than he probably was. Indeed, we recognize the approach as something of a sales point, and bristle at its intent. Then there is the mixture of 2D pen and ink sequences to accent the 3D models. It works, but it is a bit weird at first. It's very reminiscent of those moments where, due to budgetary reasons, Rankin and Bass would supplement their storylines with cartoon songs and montages. Finally, there is the voice acting. Ralph Fiennes is given the task of bringing Christ to life and he does so with a stilted mannerism that smacks of staying sacred. Jesus doesn't sound like a man as much as a animatronic at a religious revival. It's a powerful performance, but it's also arch and mildly melodramatic. Similarly, other actors such as Miranda Richardson and Richard E. Grant bring a level of theatricality that the limited facial articulation of the characters can't emulate.
But it is familiarity that undoes some of The Miracle Maker. While we are marveling at the skilled stop motion work (again done by a combination of British and Russian animators), we know exactly where this story is going. At least Mel Gibson surprised us with his gore-laden judgments of Jesus. Here, it's matter of fact and to the point. Jesus raises the dead. Jesus gathers his disciples. Jesus is called the King of Kings. Jesus is condemned, betrayed, tortured, and crucified. Now, no one is dare suggesting that the story be changed. That's blasphemy. But because there was so much attention paid to the approach, the narrative elements of The Miracle Maker suffer. Yes, it looks great. No, it doesn't leave more than the same of New Testament taste in one's mouth. Still, there is a nice cinematic quality to the piece, a scope and an epic feel that most big budget Hollywood extravaganza strive for and rarely achieve. Here, without the stunt casting and backlot feel, the story of Christ can unfold. That it doesn't wholly engage is matter of the making, not the material.
Since there are two different types of animation involved here, it's important to point out the strengths and weaknesses in the HD presentation of both. As for the cell work, it's clean and crisp, the 1080p AVC encoded 1.78:1 widescreen offering doing an excellent job in accentuating its artistry. Similarly, the stop motion material is bright and color, giving a nice cinematic effect in both look and feel. There are moments of drag here, as if the print can't keep up with the camera, but these are minor. Similarly, the added detail makes the figures look a little more fake than in their regular digital dynamic. You can occasionally see the hand-manipulation marks in the background and backdrop. Other than that, this is an excellent looking film given a nice format upgrade.
Unlike many Blu-ray mixes which offer immersion but fail to fully deliver, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track here is terrific. Voices are easy to understand while other sound elements and F/X fill in around us. We actually get the experience at being in those scenes where Jesus is mobbed by his followers. The musical score is also very good, classical without being bombastic. It can be very moving at times (of note is the fact that the composer, Anne Dudley, was actually a member of the '80s electronica act The Art of Noise. Interesting).
Aside from a DVD version of the film (which contains two Jesus-based 'games' - yes, you read that right), we get the standard Blu-ray content: a commentary with the filmmakers, a storyboard to film comparison, a nice Making-of documentary, and a collection of trailers. All add insight into the production, as well as the desire to be as "realistic" as possible with the character modeling and movement.
The story of Jesus has been told umpteen times, from serious (the silent King of Kings) to the insane (Paul Verhoeven swears that RoboCop is a veiled Christ allegory. Right). The Miracle Maker falls somewhere in the middle, mimicking the allure of '60s and '70s stop motion animation with the sacred nature of the subject matter. Since the artistry wins us over, we forgive the redundant nature of the narrative. Easily earning a Recommended rating, this is the perfect Easter Basket stuffer. It's far healthier than sugary candy treats and, as usual, reminds those outside the bunny loop the true reason for the season.
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