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The 3 Wise Men DVD Review

Buy The 3 Wise Men on DVD from Amazon.com The 3 Wise Men (Los Tres Reyes Magos)
Movie & DVD Details

Spanish Theatrical Release: December 19, 2003 / Running Time: 80 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Antonio Navarro

English Voice Cast: Martin Sheen (Gaspar), Lupillo Rivera (Balthasar), Emilio Estevez (Belial), Marcos Witt (Melchior), Kuno Becker (Tobias), Jaci Velasquez (Sarah), Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, Eddy Martin

Spanish Voice Cast: Jose Luis Rodriguez "El Puma" (Gaspar), Lupillo Rivera (Balthasar), Marcos Witt (Melchior), Kuno Becker (Tobias), Angelica Vale (Sarah)

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Dates: November 1, 2005 (Wal-Mart exclusive), October 8, 2006 (General retail)
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase


Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." - Matthew 2:1-2

The story of the three wise men is as well-known as most from the Bible, but many of the details widely passed on from generation to generation never actually appear in any of the four Gospels. The iconic Nativity image immediately conjured by the phrase "wise men" is that of three learned males who traveled afar, following a star to witness the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem manger, for which they bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But from your electric lawn Nativity set to the Rankin/Bass special The Little Drummer Boy, many people (Christian or not) know quite a bit more about these figures than Matthew or any of the other evangelists have told them. Most of mankind has established that there were exactly three wise men (logical with the assumption that each man brought one of the mentioned gifts) and that they were "magi", which can be read as anything from magicians to astrologers, kings to priests.

As the title suggests, Spain's 2003 traditionally animated film The 3 Wise Men uses the largely-accepted count and understanding of the vague Biblical reference as its setup. It then proceeds to create even more dramatic aspects about the central trio's journey to Bethlehem. Depictions of the magi in art typically distinguish the noble three by age and nationality. Such a device is again employed here and the men are assigned the names they frequently are. The film aptly sets up its titular protagonists via interweaved scenes early on. They are: the tall, mostly serious professor Gaspar (voiced by Martin Sheen in the English version), the plump sorcerer Melchior (Marcos Witt) who is consumed by the possibility of a Valley of Gold (ironically, his apprentice is the famed Midas), and the levitating meditator/action hero Balthasar (Lupillo Rivera).

Sarah seeks the services of the three wise men. The wicked Belial provides counsel to Herod, or is that Hercules and he's just really let himself go?

Before we get a chance to see the magi in their different modes of life, we meet Jimmy and Alfredo, the participants of a Princess Bride-type storytelling device set in an unspecified present-day urban setting (indicated by the intermittent blaring of sirens).
Jimmy is a wayward youth moping about not getting what he wanted for Christmas, while Alfredo is the uncle who captivates him with the timeless allure promised by his rendition of the Three Wise Men's tale.

Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar promptly leave their lives behind in expectation of something greater (which they eventually learn is the coming of "the King of Kings"), and as a result, a number of characters become a part of their world on the path to the all-important star. There are King Herod, a fat diva man-child of a ruler, and Belial (Breakfast Clubber Emilio Estevez), a cunning Gollum-like shape-shifting sorcerer, who we can identify as the antagonists or simply "baddies." There is Sarah (Christian recording artist Jaci Velasquez), a pouty-lipped, midriff-baring butt kicker, who we recognize as a victim of injustice and therefore, though feisty, a certainly benign lady. This fact seems confirmed by the presence of Aristobulus, her obligatory cute furry animal sidekick who is rarely called upon. In a grayer area morally are Tobias (Kuno Becker), the conflicted son of the late Jason who now views Herod like a father, and Baruch, a sage Jewish elder who advises both Tobias and Herod while holding motives of his own. There are also some thick-headed henchmen who despite showing up for multiple scenes neither fulfill their comic purpose nor amount to anything consequential.

Against the efforts of the powerful Belial (one of whose red eyes is along for the trip), the magical three plus the seemingly love-destined Tobias and Sarah travel on the backs of camels, following a star in the sky. While Sarah is convinced that Herod is a tyrant and needs to be supplanted, the wise men have a far different goal: to find and acquire the treasures they will bring to the newborn Christ.

The 3 Wise Men tells this not-quite-Biblical tale in a manner that seems like a cross between a small-scale spin on the old-fashioned 1950s cinema epics and a contemporary fantasy film akin to Fantastic Four or the Harry Potter series. The Bethlehem-bound magi are portrayed as magical superheroes -- they are mildly flawed but overwhelmingly good and the greatest weapon in their arsenal is not their minds but their inexplicable law-defying powers. These skills, not the promise of a savior or even values of justice or goodwill, drive their actions. "Action" is a key word, because the film is filled with sequences fitting this label, particularly in its second half. In a nod to short attention spans and the unique thrill of cinematic exhilaration, the movie trumps up action and fantastical elements that, while not remotely hinted at in the vague Gospel references, are not too out of place in most people's conceptions of either Testament of the Good Book.

Gold lighting from above underscores the Fantastic Three. Balthasar decides he better check himself before he wrecks himself.

The result is something that is effective in fits. The ancient setting and openness towards religious figures is compelling, if only because pop culture in the United States today rarely embraces such material outside of niche market entertainment (like the Veggie Tales series) or isolated instances (such as DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt or the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ). The 3 Wise Men is about the polar opposite of what needs to be sat through (the Madagascar penguins' inane "Christmas Caper" short, a trailer for Bruce Willis and company as garbage-picking CG-animated animals) to theatrically enjoy something of unique and certain worth (i.e. Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit). While being different makes director Antonio Navarro's debut feature intriguing enough to sustain a curiosity viewing, it is lacking in too many ways to qualify it as a success.

The treatment is shallow considering how important the story (or rather the untold one it leads to) is for millions of people. It just seems wrong to think that if he were clad in cyan and throwing ice that the movie's Balthasar could pass for Frozone with his cool freedom fighting antics. But this is the type of thinking the film lends itself to. Viewer contemplation about making sacrifices, restoring justice, or preparing for the birth of Christ do not enter the equation. While such weighty concepts are tough to incorporate without being heavy-handed in fare that youngsters can appreciate, it's disappointing that kids watching the film are more likely to wonder if the bad guys can be overcome or the good guys can outwit the sarcastic fire. Somehow, the blending of action, fantasy, and a moral religious story into a cartoon film does not add up right.

The 3 Wise Men had a good idea in making a vague element of the widely-celebrated Nativity scene accessible for children who spend far more time in front of a television than they do at Church. Viewers with only casual familiarity with the Gospels might even believe this to be faithful adaptation and an engaging one at that. On the other hand, those in search of a modern-day movie which remembers the first syllable of Christmas will be let down by adventure taking precedence over the baby Jesus. In fact, those expecting a Christmas film at all will be disappointed, for the Nativity aspect of the story is quite minimal and nearly absent. Still, the feature has some things going for it and does not deserve to be written off completely. Though plagued by formula and encounters that seem more at home on the pages of a Marvel comic, The 3 Wise Men does have a few values to impart and deserves credit for attempting to bring to life limited writings nearly two thousand years old. Those traits alone can't salvage it as an excellent production, but if the subject matter interests you, it may merit eighty minutes of your time.

In a rare but not unprecedented instance that the studio has teamed up with a retailer, Disney came to an agreement which makes The 3 Wise Men available exclusively from retail giant Wal-Mart's outlets. While there are more than 1,000 Wal-Marts in the United States alone, the website Wal-Mart.com provides your only other alternative for acquiring the DVD at this time. This deal mirrors Disney's distribution of the documentary America's Heart & Soul, which was released only at Costco stores the first week of last November. Heart & Soul became available at all stores three months later, so a little patience may go a long way if you're anti-Wal-Mart. Just don't expect to order from Amazon or pick this up at your local Best Buy in time for January's Three Kings Day.

Update: The rest of the nation's stores will begin selling The 3 Wise Men on October 8, 2006.

Baruch has some advice for the magi and Sarah. Where else can you hear Emilio Estevez rough up his daddy Martin Sheen?

VIDEO and AUDIO

The 3 Wise Men is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, though the package proclaims a minimally taller 1.78:1 ratio. While the basic computer font used for the opening credits suggests an extremely low-budget affair,
the visuals are actually fairly well done, if not on par with either a traditional Feature Animation Disney film or today's increasingly impressive DisneyToon Studios sequels. The animation by Animagistudio (which, Disney's press release touts, includes veterans of films like Hercules and Tarzan) is certainly a few steps above Disney's first forays into direct-to-video animation. It's hard to believe that just a few years ago, a 2D-animated movie would not have been the anomaly it is now. As is true for most modern 2D 'toons, computers appear to have been implemented from time to time in The 3 Wise Men and not so seamlessly. Sandy Earth tones do not make for the most aesthetically pleasing visuals, but they are capably presented. So are the more appealing and diverse palettes employed for the less enchanting scenes which rely on fantastical elements. Minor banding was detectable in some scenes and large screen displays will reveal some other imperfections, but in short, the disc's picture quality is sufficient and quite good.

Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 in either the new English dub or an apparently new Spanish soundtrack, not the one which adorned the film in its European theatrical run. While not a real house-rocker, the track boasts some effects which make good use of the soundfield and exemplify why channel separation can be cool. Moments like those are not prevalent -- the fairly basic mix keeps dialogue to the center channel and music to the rest. The score is nice, but repetitive enough at points that even on a first viewing you can predict and hum the melodies about to come before they happen. As seems to be the case for the majority of films made since the DVD format launched, the audio track included yields no complaints except for those especially picky about sound. And we all know how much fun those people are.

Those wanting a version faithful to the original Spanish theatrical cut may be disappointed; all credits and other on-screen text appears exclusively in English, with player-generated subtitles translating when the audio does not. The Spanish voice cast goes largely uncredited too except for a single 3-second black frame of white text that does not attribute roles to actors. There are oddly no Spanish subtitles or even ones for a literal English translation. Instead, the only feature-length subtitle track is tailored from the English dub and for the hearing-impaired, so that it dictates sounds as well as words. At least, Wal-Mart.com appears to be offering a DVD packaged primarily in Spanish alongside this English-based copy that was sent for review. Presumably, both versions will be available in stores as well.

They're fighting now but by the end, they'll be kissing and maybe with tongue. The Main Menu provides a paucity of listings but a bit of animation.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and DESIGN

On DVD, The 3 Wise Men boasts no bonus features whatsoever, not even the standard slate of previews for Disney properties. I was craving a voice cast featurette so I could call out "Emiliooooo" when the Mighty Ducks man appeared on screen. Needless to say, this bare disc did not satisfy such cravings, nor did it preserve the handful of making-of featurettes that grace France's forthcoming Region 2 DVD.

The menus at least show some inspiration. Following a brief, blurry intro, the main menu loops through 40 seconds of score, much like the film itself often does. The listings appear on a piece of parchment in the hands of Balthasar, while minor animation accompanies the screen - the passing of camels, an appearance by the cute animal sidekick, and a touch of fireworks. The handful of sub-menus feature different selections of score, but no animation.

While the disc's minimalist design might lead you to think there's no insert inside the white keepcase, you can rest easy. A thin double-sided card duplicates the front cover and lists the 16 scene selections.

Blinded by the light... The three wise men earn their crowns.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The 3 Wise Men attempts to flesh out the intriguing tale of the trio who traveled afar to witness the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, the action-packed world it creates of sorcery good and bad does not feel satisfying or especially true to the passing Biblical references. If you can accept its many faults and embrace its handful of good qualities, you may enjoy this unique epic, just as long as you don't expect Christmas or the Nativity to figure largely. This completely barren DVD disappoints in three ways: it lacks something resembling the original theatrical cut, it lacks the making-of featurettes that are accompanying the film in other parts of the world, and it is only available at Wal-Mart outlets. Is the disc worth going out of your way for? Not especially. While the video and audio presentation of the film is expectedly fine, there's just not enough here to justify more than a rental (which won't be possible until wide release) or a bargain bin buying (which is even further off). Though the idea of a thematically-different 2-D animated film from Spain sounds exotic and alluring, The 3 Wise Men fails to deliver much of a worthwhile experience.

Buy from Amazon.com / Buy from Wal-Mart.com

Reviewed November 2, 2005.

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