National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

April 1-7, 2007 Issue | Posted 3/27/07 at 9:00 AM


The Miracle Maker (2000)  - Pick

Charlotte’s Web (2006)  - PICK

Just in time for Holy Week and Easter season, one of the best and most family-friendly Jesus films ever made gets a new special-edition DVD re-release.

Created for the big screen by the BBC working with a brilliant team of Russian puppeteer-animators, The Miracle Maker is a small miracle in its own right: a simple, modest retelling of the Gospel story of the ministry and passion of Christ that does little more than present the events of the Gospel narratives with minimal adornment and invention, avoiding idiosyncratic “explanations” or editorial spin.

It’s so straightforward, it’s practically revolutionary. The deft screenplay is at once reverent, accessible, moving and both historically and theologically well-informed (advisers included the respected Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright). What elevates the film to brilliance is the astonishing stop-motion animation. The use of puppets rather than actors gives The Miracle Maker an almost literally iconic transcendence not matched in live action or traditional animation. In a strange way, the puppet Jesus is Jesus — in a way that no actor could ever be, however brilliant.

This edition includes a director-producer commentary track mostly dealing with “making of” issues such as the techniques of the Russian puppeteers. A few revelations bring a stab of regret: The filmmakers reveal that they had nearly completed a scene of Jesus walking on the water, and that the Transfiguration was also planned, but these scenes were cut for length.

Alas, these deleted scenes aren’t included as extras, and apparently there are no plans for an extended edition.

Even so, the special edition is a good opportunity to pick up a one-of-a-kind must-have, a film that succeeds admirably in fulfilling the ideal of St. John Chrysostom: “Not to say anything new, but to say it in a new way.”

Also new this week on DVD, Charlotte’s Web basically sticks to the plot of the book, and the story’s essential charm is echoed in the film.

Unfortunately, the film dumbs down E.B. White with gimmicky broad humor and bestiary slapstick (something the superior Babe found unnecessary). The film dumbs down the humans, too, especially the grownups. No longer does Fern (Dakota Fanning) plead with her father for Wilbur’s life, as in the book. Instead, she simply takes the piglet from him, declaring, “I absolutely will not let you kill him.”

Among the cast, Steve Buscemi shines as Templeton the rat in a role voiced to perfection by Paul Lynde in the 1973 cartoon.

All in all, Charlotte’s Web is fair family entertainment. The basic appeal of White’s story is sturdy enough to survive the filmmakers’ more dubious choices, and the emotional climax may even leave viewers with a lump in their throat. Even so, I’d rather re-watch the cartoon with my kids — or, better yet, re-read the book.

Content advisory

 The Miracle Maker: Restrained dramatization of Christ’s passion; some intense scenes depicting evil spirits and demonic possession that could be frightening to young children. Charlotte’s Web: Mild crass humor.