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The Miracle Maker: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

The Miracle Maker Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy Combo Pack from Amazon.com The Miracle Maker
Movie, Blu-ray & DVD Details

UK Theatrical Release: March 31, 2000 / US Television Debut: April 23, 2000 / US Video Debut: September 12, 2000 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Directors: Stanislav Sokolov, Derek Hayes / Writer: Murray Watts

Voice Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Jesus Christ), Michael Bryant (Voice of God, The Doctor), Julie Christie (Rachel), Rebecca Callard (Tamar), James Frain (Thomas), Richard E. Grant (John the Baptist), Ian Holm (Pontius Pilate), William Hurt (Jairus), Anton Lesser (Herod), Daniel Massey (Cleopas), Tim McInnerny (Barabbas), Alfred Molina (Simon the Pharisee), Bob Peck (Joseph of Arimathea), Miranda Richardson (Mary Magdalene), Antony Sher (Ben Azra), Ewan Stewart (Andrew), Ken Stott (Simon Peter), David Thewlis (Judas Iscariot), Nigel Anthony (Centurion), Robert Duncan (Lazarus), William Hootkins (Lucifer), Emily Mortimer (Mary of Nazareth), Sian Rivers (Martha), David Schofield (Caiaphas), Dougray Scott, Adam Welch (Young Jesus)

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Both: Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Blu-ray Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish / DVD Subtitles: None
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned or Subtitled
Blu-ray + DVD Release Date: March 8, 2011 (DVD first released on March 6, 2007)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Still available in Special Edition DVD ($14.98 SRP)

Buy The Miracle Maker from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Special Edition DVD


The story of Jesus Christ has been told many times and in many ways. One telling you're probably not familiar with is The Miracle Maker, a 2000 stop motion-animated feature from Russia and Wales. This film played theatrically in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain, premiered on ABC television in the United States, and went straight to video in other territories. Now, it has returned to video in a Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack released by Lionsgate this week.

Skipping over his birth, The Miracle Maker opens with Jesus as an adult (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). It recalls the one childhood story from the Gospels, and then naturally turns its focus to the Nazarene's wave-making roles as preacher and healer.
Many of the New Testament's most familiar episodes are brought to life, among them the great catch of fish, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof and cured, and the raising of Lazarus. Jesus is baptized by John, assembles the Twelve Apostles, shares the parable of the Good Samaritan, and condemns the money changers in the Temple. He tells all who will listen about the Kingdom of Heaven and what is needed to enter it. As a point of entry, this film assigns significance to Tamar, the deathly sick daughter of Jairus who is intrigued by what she hears and sticks around for some key events.

The final third of the 91-minute movie is devoted to Jesus' last days on Earth and his foreshadowed fate. Threatened by the attention and admiration the preacher is getting, the Roman authorities seek to prosecute him, with the duplicitous Judas (voiced by David Thewlis) facilitating arrest with his infamous kiss of betrayal. Jesus, of course, accepts his reluctantly-administered sentence with few words, is crucified, dies, and to, his followers' delight, rises again.

Just baptized by John, Jesus Christ basks in the pink light of the Holy Spirit. Jesus appoints his Twelve Apostles in the Welsh-Russian 2000 stop motion animated film "The Miracle Maker."

Christian entertainment is not something I gravitate towards, not because of personal beliefs but because too often faith and film do not align very comfortably. It's annoying that the entertainment industry so largely avoids religion these days, seemingly more afraid to offend anyone than to acknowledge that billions of people identify themselves with a religion. Producers who embrace faith in their work tend to exist on a fringe and aim for a niche audience. Rarely is anyone proficient at creating mainstream entertainment compelled to incorporate scripture or beliefs into their storytelling. So, much of Christian entertainment is crude, ungraceful youth-oriented programming and I feel a poor reflection of an enormously popular religion that Hollywood is more likely to lampoon than celebrate.

Fortunately, The Miracle Maker is an exception to the norm. This film does not patronize or trivialize and it isn't made purely to spread God's Word but to make the archaic prose of the Bible leap to life in a medium that most are comfortable with. It is a skillful production that is moving and quite powerful in places.

Even in its recent resurgence, stop motion has never been a prevalent art form. But it is impossible to deny its unique allure as applied here. The film makes somewhat regular use of traditional 2-D animation, often to establish chronological distance or distinguish a parable from its telling (and maybe once or twice to save time or money). Such sequences have beauty and freedom to their visuals, but the film's majority made in the painstaking small movements of flexible figures is even more striking. It's possible to forget on occasion that you are watching figurines that are posed and photographed around 100,000 times. On certain shots, the animation resembles human physics extremely convincingly. Every shot in the movie feels acutely aware of that, as eyes are blinked or not and heads are moved or remain still. There is a dynamic vitality to crowd scenes, where there is none of the time-saving stagnancy of the old Rankin-Bass TV specials or even Wes Anderson's charmingly low-key Fantastic Mr. Fox. It is of the utmost importance that The Miracle Maker doesn't come off feeling like playtime with Bible action figures and it certainly does not, even when movement is a bit jerky or shots feel slightly out of focus. It's worth noting that this film achieves what is impractical for most live-action productions, giving characters an olive-skinned Middle Eastern look that one assumes is more authentic than most Western portrayals.

Healed by Jesus after knocking on death's door, Tamar embraces her parents. On the road to Emmaus, the newly-resurrected Jesus goes unrecognized by two of his disciples in one of several traditionally-animated sequences.

There are fifteen names atop the front cover comprising what the back calls "an all-star cast." I recognize seven of them and I'd be surprised if you know more than that (especially if you are the American audience for which this release is intended).
Ralph Fiennes has the big role, one of just a few you'll be really clear about and he vocally supplies the dignity and authority you'd expect of the Messiah. While not standing out, all of the other actors fit in and hit the right notes, including David Thewlis as Judas, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, Ian Holm as Pontius Pilate, and Emily Mortimer (somehow not one of the fifteen stars) as Mary.

As animation, The Miracle Maker is implicitly aimed at the young, but it's something no one should write off as child's play. The film is appropriately respectful and faithful towards the sacred text it adapts. Unrated, it doesn't shy from Biblical bloodshed, seen in the beaten man aided by the Good Samaritan, the high priest's servant Malchus whose ear is cut off (then restored) in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on Jesus as a result of the Crown of Thorns.

Among the half a dozen companies credited with making The Miracle Maker is Icon Entertainment International, the foreign subsidiary of Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, which of course would shortly thereafter go on to make The Passion of the Christ, by far the biggest religious film of our time.

Jesus leads a miraculously massive catching of fish. Still from The Miracle Maker's 2007 Special Edition DVD - click for larger view. The same frame from the darker, richer colors and enhanced detail of the film's 2011 Blu-ray - click for larger view (scaled down from full size).

Screencap from The Miracle Maker's 2007 DVD

Same frame from The Miracle Maker's 2011 Blu-ray

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Miracle Maker looks pretty excellent on Blu-ray. Stop-motion inherently moves more smoothly than traditional animation methods and accordingly, the picture in this 1.78:1 hi-def transfer is nearly immaculate. I mentioned some minor issues with the animation itself above, in terms of focus and slight jerkiness. Beyond that, the only trouble you might notice is the infrequent white speck. Detail is remarkable and sharpness and clarity so satisfying as to make you marvel at the depths of field and meticulous character design.

The Blu-ray's DTS-HD 5.1 master audio is less remarkable, remaining largely anchored to the front center channel. Still, Anne Dudley's pleasing instrumental score is nicely rendered in this mix, playing widely to complement the dramatics.

The DVD's anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is similarly clean, but nowhere near as sharp. Colors are comparably pale, detail is significantly reduced, and some issues like grain turn up. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is not tremendously different from the Blu-ray's less compressed DTS audio. And the DVD's lack of subtitles (aside from a special track, covered below) is unfortunate.

Years before embodying evil as Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes explored the other end of the spectrum voicing Jesus Christ. He talks about his attraction to the project in the documentary "Small Miracles." Jesus' telling of the Good Samaritan parable is faded from storyboard to film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The Blu-ray Disc doesn't add any new supplements, but it retains nearly everything from the 2007 Special Edition DVD packaged alongside it.

"Small Miracles" (29:10, SD), a 2000 making-of documentary, does an excellent job of telling us how this movie came about. It gathers insight into the 5-year production from both Cardiff, Wales and Moscow. Voice actors are recorded together in May of 1996 and from there it is back and forth, as the Russian animators work with "Fastflex" puppets
and the UK crew decides on a look for Jesus and handles the cel-animated flashbacks/parables and some CGI effects. There are even some remarks from advising clergy. The result is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at an ambitious movie. It is narrated by Ioan Gruffudd, cinema's Mr. Fantastic, then just a young redubber for Welsh ears.

Next comes an audio commentary recorded for the 2007 DVD by director Derek Hayes and producer Naomi Jones. Theirs is a very informative discussion, which offers a good mix of explaining technical aspects and elaborating on dramatic intent. There is a little overlap with the documentary, but Hayes and Jones go into greater detail, touching upon topics like recording certain voice actors over the phone and abroad, introducing new technologies (CGI and motion control cameras) to the Russian team, language and travel challenges, and some of the extensive research the movie reflects. With few breaks, the two speak rather engagingly over the entire film.

Rather than the usual split-screen approach, a 1.33:1 storyboard-to-film comparison (3:39, SD) fades back and forth between the pre-production sketches and the final animation of the Good Samaritan and Gethsemane sequences. Split on the DVD, the two scenes are joined into one reel here, which is no longer preceded by a text screen on storyboarding.

"Also from Lionsgate" plays a trailer for Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, which has debuted in a Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack alongside this.

Only on DVD will you be able to play the "Learning from Jesus" Bible/film trivia challenge. "It is Written" invites you to watch the film with your Bible on hand, identifying the verses in Luke's Gospel dealing with Judas' betrayal of Jesus. It's included on the DVD but not on the Blu-ray.

The DVD retains a couple of minor interactive bonus features that are not carried over to Blu-ray. "It is Written" is a subtitle track that during playback of the film identifies Bible chapters and verses enabling you to read the entire Gospel passages from which the film is adapted. I'm sure it couldn't have been that hard to adapt this feature for the Blu-ray. The other DVD exclusive is the "Learning from Jesus" quiz, which asks about 12 multiple choice questions, follows up each correct answer with relevant scripture verse numbers, and changes on return visits.

The DVD opens with dated trailers for Happily N'Ever After, The Last Unicorn: 25th Anniversary Widescreen Special Edition, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, and Doodlebops: Superstars.

The DVD's main menu runs scenes in the clouds of an otherwise static tableau. Resembling it, the Blu-ray's menu moves around static scene poses to create the sense of depth.

The combo pack places the two discs on opposite sides of a blue eco-friendly slimline case, which is topped by a cardboard slipcover. The only insert advertises unrelated Lionsgate Blu-rays and advises regarding firmware/software upgrades.

Nailed to the cross in a Crown of Thorns, Jesus Christ utters some final words to his Father.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Miracle Maker isn't quite a masterpiece, but it does a much better job than most animation trying to tell Christ's tale. This endearing but little-known international production makes its Blu-ray debut with outstanding picture, adequate sound, a few solid bonus features, and the movie's standalone $10 DVD included for good measure. If you're determined to skip Blu-ray, this release isn't for you. If you've been meaning to buy the movie but haven't, there's little reason not to spend a few dollars more to get this over the DVD alone. If you've never heard of this and now are interested, it's probably worth giving either version a spin this Lenten season.

Buy The Miracle Maker from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack / Special Edition DVD

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Reviewed March 11, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2000 Artisan Entertainment, Icon Entertainment International, Ffilmiau S4C Films, British Screen and 2007-2011 Lionsgate.
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