Well meaning but often as tediously earnest as a Sunday sermon, low-budget “The Book of Mormon Movie Volume 1: The Journey” achieves an impressively epic scale at times and is kept moving by sheer force of its dense narrative. An independently-made adaptation of a fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scripture, pic’s lack of technical polish and the secular subject matter of other recent Mormon films will limit its appeal to non-LDS audiences. Still, pic has grossed $l.5 million since last year, in an unusual release pattern mixing commercial theater bookings with one-night-only engagements at civic centers and high school auditoriums. A “Volume 2” is already in the works.
In Palmyra, N.Y., circa 1823, the angel Moroni (Bruce Newbold) appears to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (Dustin Harding) and presents him with a series of gold plates containing “the full Gospel of Jesus Christ” as well as subsequent historical records detailing the ancient peoples of America. (Joseph Smith also will be the subject of a upcoming bio-pic by Mormon autuer Richard Dutcher.)
This is followed by a flashback to Jerusalem in the year 600 B.C. where another prophet, Lehi (Bryce Chamberlain), has been told by God that the city will be destroyed if its denizens do not stop their sinful ways. Having angered the tyrannical Laban (Michael Flynn) with his preachings, Lehi and his family flee into the wilderness, Laban’s armed guards close behind. But, Lehi forgot to bring the plated scriptures, which Laban currently possesses. Lehi sends his four sons, led by the youngest and strongest, Nephi (Noah Danby), who is the only “true believer” of the group, back into Jerusalem to retrieve the plates.
This leads to a morally compelling episode in which Nephi must decide whether he should kill Laban to spare thousands of others.
Soon, “The Book of Mormon Movie” returns to the wilderness and falls into a predictable, repetitive pattern as Lehi’s family is confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles lying between them and the “promised land.” Throughout, Nephi’s brothers are violently antagonistic toward him, believing that they will all die by venturing so far from Jerusalem. Which leads to an equally repetitive series of sequences in which Nephi must call upon the Lord’s divine power to show his brothers he is in contact with God.
Ultimately, “The Book of Mormon Movie” lacks the quieter, more incidental moments that can make a movie like last year’s “The Gospel of John” seem such a rich and authentic evocation of biblical times.
Film also suffers from sets and costumes that look like they were imported from a nearby renaissance fair and well-meaning, but generally ham-fisted, stiff performances from its sprawling ensemble cast. It’s also impossible to deny that, so soon after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” there’s something vaguely silly about seeing a biblical drama performed in modern-sounding, un-accented English.
The filmmaking, however, is often surprisingly adept, if not particularly inspired, with Neal Brown’s crisp HD-video lensing doing justice to the scenery of Kauai, Green River and the various Utah locales where pic was shot. Likewise, visual effects supervisor Alan Williams executes some very ambitious CG work that richly enhances a dramatic storm-at-sea sequence, even if it never quite belies the fact that the whole scene was shot on a stage.
Like the “Lord of the Rings” films, pic ends on a cliff-hanger, set several years after the initial action, as Nephi and his brother Sam (frequent Mormon film actor Kirby Heyborne), prepare for an oncoming war instigated by their two dissident brothers.