The clay animation process, that is, which bestowed upon humanity the previously uncontemplated thrill of singing raisins. Now a Russian production company, Christmas Films, has told the story of Christ's ministry, death, and resurrection by means of small clay "puppets" (as they're termed in the credits). The British Broadcasting Corporation's unit in Wales, Cymru, supplied additional footage in traditional animation, as well as English-language voices.
The resulting two-hour film, "The Miracle Maker" (airing Easter night at 7:00 p.m. on ABC), has not only brought together Russian and Welsh animators with British actors (Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, and Ian Holm as Pilate). Groups who have lately confronted Disney--ABC's parent company--for what the groups say are pro-gay policies at Disneyworld have been flinging palms in the path of this production. "We should be grateful to ABC for having the courage and integrity to run a film aimed at children that clearly presents Jesus as the Savior of the world," says Jess Moody, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor in California. "If a Disney company is extending an olive branch, shouldn't we reach back with gratitude?"
Anyway, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention explains, a boycott has to do with how you spend actual money, not with watching television, so such shows were never off limits.
Still, skeptics may still hesitate to tune in to a claymation Jesus--not to mention one delivered by a Russian-Welsh collaboration. But the story follows the Gospel accounts with care and respect. And animation turns out to be an excellent medium for stories that have one foot in the natural and one in the supernatural realm. As Douglas LeBlanc writes in Christianity Today, even "adobe phobes" will be newly persuaded of the medium's potential. Events that would be unbearably hokey depicted by live-action special effects come across smoothly here.
"The Miracle Maker" increases this effectiveness by using both 2-D and 3-D animation. Ordinary "real life" is displayed by the actions of the clay puppets; memories, storytelling, daydreams, hallucinations, and parables occur in two-dimensional cartoon animation. Mary Magdalene, whom Luke's Gospel says was possessed by seven demons, is wandering in the city one rainy night when she sees a face peering at her from a window. As terrifying delusions engulf her, the scene shifts to 2-D animation, and every building bristles with menacing faces. By the time she reaches a hilltop and encounters Jesus, she has split into numerous overlapping convulsive figures and screams at him in agony.
When Jesus pulls her free of this bondage, she collapses in his arms, and the scene reverts to 3-D clay figures. It's a powerful scene, and it's hard to imagine it conveyed as effectively in live action.
Likewise, while craven Judas is walking through Jerusalem and pondering whether to betray Jesus, he hears his old partner in sedition, Barrabbas, call to him from a prison cell. Immediately Judas rolls through a series of imaginary 2-D scenes, which morph swiftly from himself crucified for rebellion against Rome to a stream of silver coins pouring into a leather purse, then the purse opening into the sail of a ship that carries him safely away. The 3-D Judas we see next has decided what he will do.
Hurt's isn't the only voice that needs help. The voicing often seems uneven and mistimed, as the actors gamely try to stretch their lines to match the lip movements on the screen. Jesus' familiar lines contain some strange hesitations: "Yet the mustard seed becomes...the greatest...tree of all...and all the birds of the air come and make their...nests in its branches."
Ralph Fiennes is a better actor than this, but when it's Jesus, you can't just ad lib a few extra phrases to make things come out even. Similarly, Miranda Richardson's lines continue to sound headlong and overwrought long after her exorcism, again perhaps because she was trying to match a puppet's erratic actions. With animation, it's easier if you do the voices first.
The surprise of "The Miracle Maker" is that clay animation could be not laughable, not merely adequate, but powerfully moving in conveying this ancient story. It will be no surprise if "The Miracle Maker" becomes an Easter broadcasting staple, year after year.