The Miracle Maker

Voices:

Voices:

Jesus ….. Ralph Fiennes

Voice of God/

The Doctor ….. Michael Bryant

Rachel ….. Julie Christie

Tamar ….. Rebecca Callard

Thomas ….. James Frain

John the Baptist ….. Richard E. Grant

Pilate ….. Ian Holm

Jairus ….. William Hurt

Herod ….. Anton Lesser

Cleopas ….. Daniel Massey

Barabbas ….. Tim McInnerny

Simon the Pharisee ….. Alfred Molina

Joseph of Arimathea ….. Bob Peck

Mary Magdalene ….. Miranda Richardson

Ben Azra ….. Antony Sher

Andrew ….. Ewan Stewart

Simon Peter ….. Ken Stott

Judas ….. David Thewlis

King of Kings” goes to clay with “The Miracle Maker,” an initially intriguing but ultimately rather so-what version of the life of Christ using a mixture of 3 -D models and 2-D drawn animation. Despite the enormous amount of care that’s gone into the project, and the way in which the characters take on a certain life of their own, the theatrical audience for this kind of movie looks limited to school groups more than the general public, most of whom are likely to catch it on the small screen or subsequently on video. U.K. distrib Icon is giving it a bigscreen spin starting March 31, three weeks before Easter.

The efforts to create a pseudo reality through animated clay models, digital effects and realistic art direction beg the question as to why the producers simply didn’t go the full hog and make a biblical movie with real actors, especially when the filmmaking climate is looking more and more congenial to a revival of the historical epic genre. The bottom line of “The Miracle Maker” is that being animated doesn’t really add much to the movie: in essence, this is a fairly standard trot through the main markers of Jesus’ life, with nothing new in the interpretation and little difference from previous accounts apart from a few character riffs.

The more astounding the animation is in making the story seem real, the more one wishes it were a real, live-action movie. The cleverness of the 3-D model work (by Christmas Films in Moscow) often detracts from the storytelling: Instead of becoming involved in the movie, you find yourself wondering how the visuals were achieved.

Production was initiated in 1996 by Welsh TV channel S4C, which had had considerable success with its series “Shakespeare: The Animated Tales” (on which Christmas has also worked) and “Testament, the Bible in Animation.” Decision was also made to include some regular 2-D sequences, which mostly look like moving crayon drawings; largely used in flashback sequences, they jar badly with the clay model work, pulling the viewer back into more conventional animation and further confuse the pic’s identity. Throughout, movement is jerky rather than Disney smooth, though that’s not a problem per se.

Story starts in the town of Sepphoris, Upper Galilee, in “year 90 of the Roman occupation,” introing Jesus as a grown man who steps in to rescue prostie Mary Magdalene from being beaten up. At the same time, the character of a 12 -year-old girl, Tamar, is introduced, through whose admiring eyes Jesus is occasionally observed. Briefly referred to in the Luke version of his life, though not given a name, Tamar is scripter Murray Watts’ one major innovation — and sticks out rather self-consciously as such.

Events move rapidly from Jesus’ taking leave of his mother to wander in the wilderness, after a brief encounter with John the Baptist, through some 2-D temptations, with an American-voiced Satan standing out from the largely Brit voice talent; to gathering the disciples and the Sermon on the Mount. Between the main action, subplots involve Tamar’s sickness being cured, the religious authorities becoming antsy over Jesus’ popular appeal, and the character of Barabbas, who wants fire-and-sword revenge on the Romans. Last character is interwoven in a way that strongly recalls MGM’s 1961 classic “King of Kings.”

Last third of the 90-minute movie is taken up with events from the Last Supper onward, with Jesus bounced between an uninterested Pilate, a scheming Caiaphas and a maniacal Herod before his crucifixion and resurrection. Pic then just stops, with no grand, inspiring epilogue.

Voice cast is peppered with name British talent and an array of regional accents that may be an attempt to replicate the linguistic diversity of the time. In this respect, Ken Stott’s fisherman Peter, played asan ornery Scot, works rather well, with some welcome humor. But several well-known thesps register weakly: Julie Christie is bland as Tamar’s mom, William Hurt ponderous as her dad, and Miranda Richardson flat in the enhanced role of Mary Magdalene.

Dominating the voice cast are Ian Holm, as a wonderfully ill-tempered Pilate, bored out of his mind by all the squabbling among the Jews; Richard E. Grant’s cameo as a wild-eyed John the Baptist; and Anton Lesser’s barn-stormingly evil Herod. Through all these voices glides Ralph Fiennes’ Jesus, a singularly mild and uninspiring performance not helped by the fact that he’s given a broad, somewhat superior smile, blow-dried hair more suitable to a Hollywood exec and a build that looks like he works out daily at some biblical gym.

Jesus’ model is one of several passing distractions, including a Thomas who’s a dead ringer for Paul McCartney and a Simon the Pharisee who recalls the late Frank Thring, a staple bad guy from the golden age of Hollywood historical epics.

The costumes, and Helena Livanova’s detailed, immensely realistic 3-D art direction, are among the movie’s running delights, with a real feel for the period. Too bad that Anne Dudley’s score fails repeatedly to rise to the occasion, with no clear-cut themes and a consistent lack of grandeur or inspiration.

The Miracle Maker

(ANIMATED -- U.K.-RUSSIA)

Production: An Icon release (in U.K.) of an S4C Films presentation, with participation of British Screen and Icon Entertainment Intl., in association with BBC Wales, of a Cartwn Cymru (U.K.)/Christmas Films (Russia) production. Produced by Naomi Jones. Executive producer, Christopher Grace. Executive co-producer, Elizabeth Babakhina. Directed by Stanislav Sokolov, Derek Hayes. Executive director, Hayes. Screenplay, Murray Watts.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor prints), Alexander Vikhanski; editors, William Oswald, John Richards; music, Anne Dudley; executive art designer, Helena Livanova; 2-D art director/backgrounds, Ashley Potter; costume designers, Anna Baibakova, Eugenia Bogolyubova; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Jeffreys; voice casting, Mary Selway, Sarah Trevis. Reviewed at Century preview theater, London, March 28, 2000. Running time: 91 MIN.

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