At selected cinemas across the country from today
An animated story of Jesus is a bit of a miracle - in more senses than one. Brian Sibley tries to see how it's done
The Miracle Maker is aptly named. All film animation is a miracle: a wonder of suspended disbelief. When we watch an animated film - whether drawn on celluloid in the classic Disney style, created in a computer like the Toy Story movies or featuring manipulated Plasticine figures such as Nick Park's beloved Wallace and Gromit, what we see does not, in reality, exist.
It is all a trick of the eye known as "persistence of vision" which springs from our viewing a series of still drawings or photographs at such speed that they appear to move. This, of course, is the illusion by which all cinema works; the only difference between the live-action picture and the animated film, is that in animation every single character - whether drawn or modelled - along with the world in which they live, has to be created from scratch and brought convincingly to life.
When the illusion works, we are as caught up in the animator's tale as we are in any featuring flesh-and-blood actors. That's when tears well up in our eyes at the death of Bambi's mother or we find ourselves on the edge of our seats, wondering whether Simba in The Lion King will defeat his evil uncle, Scar. When, in The Miracle Maker, we witness the Crucifixion enacted by what are, in effect, puppets and find ourselves drawn into the breath-catching drama and emotion of the scene, that is, indeed, something of a miracle.
Walt Disney once observed that animation was capable of depicting whatever the mind of man could conceive. And so it is: from Hans Christian Andersen to The Simpsons, South Park - and now St Luke's Gospel. (The animated film knows no boundaries: something which S4C and Christmas Films, the production team behind The Miracle Maker, has already proved.) Earlier collaborations between the Welsh television channel and the Russian animation studio have achieved a trail-blazing reputation with first, critically acclaimed interpretations of the plays of Shakespeare (The Animated Tales), and later, classics of opera and literature and stories from the Old Testament.
Taking some of the world's greatest cultural and spiritual works, the film-makers re-presented them in a form that uses - critics of the enterprise might say hijacks - a popular medium with which all of us, but especially young people, are comfortably familiar.
The result? The Bard and the Bible made user-friendly for those generations reared on Saturday morning animated TV shows. And all clocking in at a neat and tidy 30 minutes, which makes them ideal for the classroom.
That formula has now been extended to a feature-length animated film, a format which has long been the almost exclusive province of the Americans. British studios have a respected, Oscar-winning, track record in animation, but have rarely been able to muster the resources to produce feature-length films. This year, however, two animated feature films from British production companies come to our screens, both using three-dimensional models.
In July, Aardman Animations will release Chicken Run, its long-anticipated first full-length feature: an example of the prisoner of war escape-movie genre, set on a chicken farm and boastinga starry voice cast including Mel Gibson, Jane Horrocks and Miranda Richardson as the ruthless farmer's wife, Mrs Tweedy.
And BC (Before Chickens) comes The Miracle Maker, also with an all-star voice cast featuring Ralph Fiennes, Julie Christie, Ian Holm, William Hurt, Richard E Grant, Antony Sher and, once again, Miranda Richardson (this time as Mary Magdalene).
Full of wit and originality, Chicken Run will nevertheless inhabit the established territory of the comedy film: fun and frolics, suspense, sentiment and a lot of laughs; a particularly English blend of the well-known Hollywood brew. Similarly, The Miracle Maker is an English - or at least, Anglo-Russian - variation on another American movie formula established in dozens of pictures from The Robe to The Last Temptation of Christ.
With so many films having been made about episodes in the life of Jesus, it is tempting to ask why make another? And, more to the point, why make it in animation? But then, why not? Especially since Disney has made animated films of such live-action subjects such as Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and DreamWorks recently gave the animation treatment to the story of Moses in The Prince of Egypt.
The Miracle Maker, however, is unique in combining puppetry with occasional sequences in line animation used either for flashbacks (Mary's memories of the Nativity) or, with great verve, to illustrate the parables of Jesus: the story of the Good Samaritan vibrantly presented in highly stylised and garishly coloured pictograms.
Although it can be an asset of animation that the characters are not overlaid with an audience's perceptions of the actors playing them (remember John Wayne as the Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told?) characterisation in The Miracle Maker nevertheless tends towards the stereotypical: Simon Peter, a bullish, rugged Scotsman; Judas, a wide-eyed zealot with a north country accent; and the Jewish and Roman leaders: all dissolute, languid and camply sardonic.
But what of the Miracle Maker himself? Screenwriter Murray Watts has wisely chosen to tell the story from an intrinsically human perspective, viewing many of the key events through the eyes of Jairus's daughter, a child, who is healed by Jesus. However, maybe because the film has five "historical" and 10 "theological" advisers (including a former Archbishop) there is perhaps an inevitable feeling of an Identikit Christ, designed to suit everybody and offend nobody.
Ralph Fiennes gives Jesus a voice that is caring and compassionate and yet, at times, angry and ironic; but the reasons why he speaks and acts in the way he does remain curiously elusive and enigmatic. However you present this story, it still requires an acceptance of such concepts as "sin" and "salvation" and it still demands the same leap of faith. Who knows whether The Miracle Maker will encourage anyone to make that leap? It is enough, perhaps, that by seeing this most influential of spiritual mythologies presented anew, audiences of all ages will be helped to catch a glimpse of its powerand potency.
For details tel: 0845 3030005. Brian Sibley is the author of a number of books on film animation, including the forthcoming Chicken Run: Hatching the Movie. He wrote the animation screenplays in the S4CChristmas Films Old Testament productions Jonah and Moby-Dick.