The greatest story ever told receives an injection of dramatic novelty with Antonio Navarro’s charming toon, “The Three Wise Men,” which neatly fuses its time-honored tale with an upbeat seasonal message and spectacular images from a high-profile animation team. Aimed squarely at kids, pic is committed to traditional storytelling values, but the technical expertise generated by its $9 million budget and neat balance of plot with character makes for invigorating pre-teen viewing. Home B.O. since mid-December release has been discreet but is picking up due to word-of-mouth, and pic has been presold to selected offshore territories.
“Men” is framed as a story told to Jimmy (voiced by Ricardo Gomez), a cynical urban kid who doesn’t believe in Christmas. In Judea, the three wise men — tubby, absent-minded Melchor (Juan Echanove), haughty intellectual professor Gaspar (Jose Coronado) and stern, brave Baltasar (Imanol Arias) — are each instructed to follow the North Star to find the treasure which will then be taken to the birthplace of the one true king (who is never named or shown).
However, the camp, overweight tyrant of Judea, Herod (Javier Gurruchaga), aided by trusty sidekick Belial (Jose Luis Angulo), is there to see they never arrive. Herod is so evil that scorpions cross themselves when they see him.
The journey is about overcoming increasingly difficult obstacles, the main one a temple where the treasure is hidden. This includes such features as wolves frozen into the ice and Belial transforming himself into sundry unpleasant shapes. The lengthy, breathless temple sequence gives the animation directors a chance to flex their imaginative muscles, and pic really comes into its own.
There’s plenty of light comedy, much of it based around the bickering between Melchor and Gaspar, who can’t agree whether the sun goes round the moon or vice versa. Pic makes its basically Christian moral points — about being suspicious of power and the need for compassion and humility — with similar delicacy.
Toon is weakest in its subplot featuring love interest Sara, an unlikely rebel warrior, and Tobias, the good-looking son of a man killed by Herod. These two, along for the ride with the wise men, only seem to be in the film so they can end up kissing. The rousing score by Jose Battaglio and Kaelo del Rio is fitting but delivers nothing new.