There’s a reason why John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” has stood the test of time: The author’s rich tale of an everyman’s extraordinary journey to find faith is a resonant reminder for believers to never stray from “the straight and narrow” — a message that’s evident from the very first moments of writer-director Robert Fernandez’s animated adaptation of the beloved novel.
Though this relatively low-budget retelling is hampered by its limited production values (it was partly funded by Kickstarter campaign), the execution is strong enough to serve as a previs run-through for a grander scale, live-action feature — the likes of which have never been offered to audiences, despite a flourishing faith-based market. Fernandez’s first feature, screening in the lead-up to Easter via Fathom Events nationwide on April 18 and 20, plays like a cinematic Cliff’s Notes for kids, even as it retains the heart and drama of the original novel.
For many years, the city of Destruction has been left to rot, while its citizens resort to perpetual hard labor to survive. They’re micro-managed by disciplinary supervisors, descendants of an evil ruler who discouraged free thinking, dreamers, and personal beliefs. The claustrophobic atmosphere is as stifling as the oppressive rule. But one of their dutiful workers, a man by the name of Faithful Pathfinder, turns up missing, leaving behind visionary sketches of a mythical, gilded place called “Celestial City.” The finding irrevocably upends their world.
Another ordinary man, Christian Pilgrim (Ben Price), unearths Faithful Pathfinder’s contraband journal teaching about kindness, injustice, and impending doom caused by war. After his eyes are metaphorically opened, these lessons weigh on him, and his existential panic physically manifests as a shell-like backpack that grows larger each day. His only option to rid himself of this load is to leave his doubting family and set out on a journey of discovery predicated on faith alone. Only his trek won’t be easy. He’ll have to face many obstacles, both physical and psychological, and meet a slew of helpful and hindering characters along his path toward freedom and salvation.
The beguiling graphic novel design of the opening segment, with its heavy black-line drawings and dripping ink-splotch transitions, differentiates the city’s bleak backstory from the rather generically-designed CG-driven present. Instead of being a complementary blend of the two different styles, it makes audiences wish the filmmakers had embraced the former aesthetic throughout. For most of the film, the CG characters don’t blink, staring off-mark into the uncanny valley. Their designs are also a mixed bag: The angelic presence of the Interpreter (voiced by Kristyn Getty) looks beautiful with her twinkly tiara, crisp white Renaissance Faire gown and Lord of the Rings’ Galadriel-like influence, whereas Help looks like a distractingly goofy Amazonian Bruce Willis in a terrible shaggy wig.
The film finds greater strength in its visuals during the climatic action sequences, where there’s vibrancy as the righteous battle their intimidating foes. Gatekeeper Goodwill has a kung-fu fight against Beelzebub’s winged demons, who are as terrifying as the Flying Monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” Later, Christian’s days-long swordfight with the devil’s henchman Apollyon morphs into the look of a heavy metal album cover as the armor-clad knight and horned demon battle atop a lava-spitting volcano. On the flip side, the filmmakers bestow a sense of calm into the scene where Christian and city guard Hopeful come across the Shepherd. Poppies and lilacs waver in the gentle wind sweeping over a green field against the pop of a blue sky above.
Narratively, Fernandez sticks close to Bunyan’s work so as not to dilute the text, nor ruffle any feathers with modern commentary. At this point in cinema, the author’s plot structure has been copied, pilfered, and repacked a thousand times. The ups and downs of the protagonist’s perilous journey probably won’t deliver much shock or surprise except maybe to youngsters. Yet it still manages to stoke audience engagement with its emotional core, particularly whenever Christian is forced to figure his way out of a sticky situation, or when Evangelist (voiced by John Rhys-Davies) rescues him from peril. The underlying commentary on having tenacity, strength and courage during trials and tribulations is preserved. Bunyan knew how to weave the tapestry, and Fernandez knows how to showcase it.
One questionable element that doesn’t transfer quite as easily happens when Christian and Hopeful are captured by giants in the Realm of Despair. Giantess Diffidence assumes the role of a stereotypically grotesque, nagging wife, constantly haranguing her husband about how he’s a failure and calling him hurtful names under her breath — an outdated depiction that feels lazy and sexist. While this adaptation may not win over any new converts, it does serve as a blessed reminder of faith’s rewards in a seemingly endless, punishing, and dark time.