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NEWS FEATURE: ABC’s Claymation Jesus: Old Story, New Technique

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The annual pop culture holy days blitz is in full swing, as mass media outlets release articles and TV specials timed to coincide with the celebration of Passover (April 20-27) and Easter (April 23). “Why Jesus Was Killed,” a story promising new insights about the Crucifixion, is on the […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The annual pop culture holy days blitz is in full swing, as mass media outlets release articles and TV specials timed to coincide with the celebration of Passover (April 20-27) and Easter (April 23).

“Why Jesus Was Killed,” a story promising new insights about the Crucifixion, is on the cover of the April 24 issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Meanwhile, TV networks began their tributes to traditional religion on April 16 with a pair of Palm Sunday broadcasts.

Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” in which Moses condemns God’s people for worshipping a golden calf, didn’t replace “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” at the top of the Nielsen ratings for the week, but the 1956 biblical epic did rank a respectable number eight in the Nielsens. The show, which ABC had aired annually between 1992 and 1998, apparently benefited from a 1999 holy days hiatus.

The most interesting Palm Sunday offering was A&E’s “Quest for the Lost Tribes,” a compelling two-hour documentary by Simcha Jacobovich about his passionate, life-long international search for the remnants of 10 of the 12 Jewish tribes that were scattered by Assyrian invaders nearly 3,000 years ago.

But the most unusual religious offering of the season debuts Easter evening (7-9 p.m. ET) when ABC airs “The Miracle Maker,” a faith-affirming retelling of the ancient story of Jesus that uses the latest in two-dimensional animation and three-dimensional “claymation.”

Created through the collaboration of cartoonists in Cardiff, Wales, and 3-D animators in Moscow, the program’s New Testament characters convey personality and emotion, and its first-century settings are realistic and lifelike.

An all-star cast of voices adds depth to the characters. Ralph Fiennes’ Jesus is appealing and plaintive. The program also features William Hurt as the voice of Jairus, Julie Christie as Rachel, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, Ian Holm as Pilate and David Thewlis as Judas.

Surprisingly, some of the characters in “The Miracle Maker” seem more alive than some of the stiff actors featured in some of the more stilted live-action Jesus movies. Still, as much as the craft of claymation has evolved over the years, some viewers may find it difficult to patiently follow Jesus and his disciples as they move jerkily through the two-hour program, occasionally stopping to bury their faces in their big, stubby-fingered hands for extra emphasis.

But unlike “Noah’s Ark,” a vexingly idiosyncratic biblical miniseries that starred Jon Voight and aired on NBC last May, “The Miracle Maker” doesn’t try to update the Bible by taking liberties with the biblical texts.

Instead, it focuses its creative energies on finding new ways to tell a timeless saga. For example, in one of the program’s animated segments, Jesus narrates the parable of the two builders while animation creatively contrasts two men: one laboriously excavating a foundation out of solid rock; the other casually building a palace on shifting sands.

Jesus’ words paraphrase the text of Matthew’s Gospel with an informed respect for the text:

“Build your life like you build a house, on deep foundations. Don’t just take the easy way; take the hard way.”

Throughout, “The Miracle Maker” tells the story of Jesus straight, which helped the program win a seal of approval from the theologically conservative Dove Foundation. The program’s script was reviewed by a panel of theological experts, as was 1998’s popular animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

Both colorful and fast-moving enough to keep the attention of children and imaginative and sophisticated enough to intrigue adults, “The Miracle Maker” could make this Easter evening a prime time for families to gather around the electronic hearth and enjoy a faithful retelling of the origins of the Christian faith.

Then in May, CBS will air its highly anticipated “Jesus” miniseries. It was originally scheduled to air later this month but has been moved to May 14 (Mother’s Day) and 17.

Created by the producer behind the Emmy Award-winning “Joseph” as well as five other major biblical programs, “Jesus” is a stunning new look at the life and times of the man who continues to amaze both devoted disciples and curious seekers.

DEA END RABEY