"How do you tell the greatest story ever told?". That is a question which has plagued filmmakers since the invention of film. In the last hundred years they have come up with many different approaches to tell the story of Jesus, all of which have their own strengths and shortcomings.
We have The Passion of the Christ, which is preachy and exploitative of its subject to the point of outright manipulation. Mel Gibson forces Jesus' holiness down our throats in a barrage of bloodshed and torture, the explanation being that the pain we experience from watching it is but a fraction of that which He bore on the cross. We have The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Martin Scorsese explores the human side of Jesus, arguing that since he was wholly man as well as wholly God, He must have experienced and resisted the same desires as you and me. And we have Monty Python's Life of Brian, which recognises the need for humour, if not flippancy, to demonstrate the relevance of the story in contemporary society. Whatever their individual religious outlooks, the Pythons never sought to attack the character and teachings of Jesus so much as the mob's reaction to them.
All these efforts have their strengths (even The Passion), but they are all ultimately contrivances. They are artists' elaborations on the life of Jesus, a sideways glance at the Gospels rather than a literal, verbatim retelling. What makes The Miracle Maker interesting is that it is closer to the words of the Gospels than all its better-known, bigger-budget rivals.
The script does still involve dramatic devices (the story is told from the point of a view a girl who appears only fleetingly in the Bible), and no-one involved would begin to call it 'definitive'. But it is still a fine script, which brings out the lighter, more playful side of Jesus' teachings which many of the heavy-handed adaptations neglect. The screenwriter Murray Watts is a prolific playwright with the acclaimed Riding Lights Theatre Company, and knows how to capture the essence of the Biblical stories even when the language or setting has completely changed. In this instance, he has an easier task, but it is put together and directed in such an unfussy, understated way that it is fair to claim it is as close as one can get to the Gospels without simply having a narrator reading the verses.
Of course, being accurate doesn't necessarily make something cinematic, and there are moments in which The Miracle Maker does feel like an extended TV drama. Part of this lies in the project's roots; the animation is co-produced by the same Welsh team behind Testament, the Emmy-award winning BBC2 series of the 1990s, which took famous Biblical stories and presented them through different forms of animation. Some of the animation has either dated or looks off-putting; many of the clay-models have odd-shaped lips which make it seem like they are constantly pouting, and some will find the movements of these characters too jerky to seem believable.
Where the animation does come good is in the hand-drawn sections. There is greater scope here, but the writers rightly withhold these sections until key moments of emotion power, preventing the film from descending into the sinister world of Christian comics. The scenes of Jesus casting out Mary Magdalene's demons have a nightmarish quality, and the hand-drawn animation gives the transformation a sense of power which you wouldn't get in stop-motion. These sequences utilise shadows and flashbacks really well, giving a sense of terror without tripping over into anything which is unnecessarily gruesome. On the other hand, the animation helps to bring out the lighter sections of the film, particularly the 'speck in your brother's eye' parable or the story of the man who built his house upon the rock.
These kinds of touches are necessary in ensuring that The Miracle Maker avoids the trap of simply preaching to the converted. Arguably this is a lesser sin (so to speak) than stripping the teachings of Christianity down so that a mainstream crowd can follow it. And in general The Miracle Maker gets it right, with only occasional moments in which things seem cheesy, contrived or overplayed in the way which only Christians seem to appreciate.
When it comes to the performances in The Miracle Maker, it's very difficult to judge. Because the nature of God and therefore of Jesus is subject to speculation, one cannot praise an actor for 'perfectly capturing the character' of the Messiah. Ralph Fiennes is ideal from a voice point of view, because it has the potential for anger and purpose while retaining its gentle, welcoming quality. Certainly his performance is the highlight of the film, although Miranda Richardson is very good as Mary Magdalene (watch the making-of documentary for her facial expressions alone). Ken Stott is good as Simon Peter and Ian Holm is well-cast as Pontius Pilate, playing the character more as an uppity bureaucrat than the tormented soul in Jesus Christ Superstar.
As stupid as it may seem to say it, one of the big problems with many Christian films is that they finish in the wrong place. The torture and crucifixion of Jesus is played out prominently, held up for all to see, but the more important aspect of resurrection is often bolted on to the end. In The Passion of the Christ, there is only the briefest suggestion of the resurrection, with God turning up at the last minute just as He does in the works of Cecil B. De Mille. The Miracle Maker again gets this right, if almost by accident; the resurrection element takes up less room in the Gospels than the rest of Holy Week, and so it gets less screen time. The final lines themselves are slightly toe-curling in a sub-Stephen Spielberg way, although it's hard to see how else this particular account could have been resolved.
The Miracle Maker is not a perfect film by any means, either as a standalone piece of animation or as a religious document. But in a marketplace which is dominated by films which either go too far or completely neglect their intended audience, it is a welcome addition for its complete lack of pretension or exaggeration for dramatic effect. It's a solid attempt to put the story of Jesus up on screen for a family audience, and it strikes a good balance between being faithful to the stories and carving out its own identity. With all the controversy surrounding Christianity of film, it is a happy little oasis in a burning desert, to which the occasional return is more than welcome.