Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Classic Role Revisited: A Review of the animated Ben Hur

My family recently re-watched the new, animated version of Ben Hur, and it reminded me of this previously unpublished review I wrote of the film several years ago when it first came out. My kids give the DVD five stars, which ought to go at least as far as anything I could say. For further reading and entertainment, try the new, four disc edition of the 1959, Oscar-winning version of Ben Hur, as well as Charlton Heston's autobiography, In The Arena, which is an absorbing, well-written account of the great actor's life and work. Favourite Heston quote: (speaking of Robert DeNiro): 'It's ridiculous for an actor that good to keep playing Las Vegas hoods.'

In 1959, legendary actor Charlton Heston delivered the definitive portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, the hero of General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century blockbuster novel, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ. Heston won the Best Actor Academy Award for Ben Hur, one of a record eleven Oscars (1997's Titanic finally matched the record without surpassing it, as did 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Recently, the American Film Institute voted Ben Hur one of the 100 best films of all time, and the movie’s stunning chariot race is widely regarded as perhaps the best action sequence ever filmed.

Now, 44 years later, Charlton Heston reprises his most famous role in the new, animated version of Ben Hur (Agamemnon Films/Good Times Entertainment), a production that brings the classic story to a new and younger audience. For those unfamiliar with the story, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ, follows the life of Judah Ben-Hur, a young Hebrew prince, and his childhood friend, Messala. After five years in the army, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a Roman centurion, and Judah realizes that the closeness he once shared with his old friend has withered in the heat of Messala’s radical devotion to Rome. When Judah refuses to betray his people by acting as a spy among them, Messala falsely accuses him of trying to assassinate the Roman procurator. Judah’s mother and sister are thrown in prison, and Judah himself is enslaved, consigned to the galleys of a Roman war ship. More than five years pass before Judah escapes from the ship in dramatic fashion, and begins his long journey home; a journey marked by an epic sea battle, a heart-stopping chariot race, and an enduring faith in God.

The context for the story is the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the story begins with the search of the Magi for the Christ child, and continues thirty years later with Balthazar (one of the Magi) searching again for the child who had become a man. And in some ways, Christ is a more prominent character in this adaptation: unlike William Wyler’s 1959 version, for instance, the face of Jesus is shown throughout. Dying of thirst on his way to the galleys, Judah is helped by a kind carpenter who gives him water. Later, Judah meets that same carpenter again, hears his teaching, and determines to follow him. Though Judah triumphs over Messala in the chariot race, it is a bitter victory, immediately followed by the news that his mother and sister are alive, but have become lepers and outcasts. Judah determines to bring them to Jesus, and on learning of Christ’s arrest, tries—unsuccessfully—to raise an army to free him. As Judah stands on Golgotha and witnesses the crucifixion of Christ, he realizes that the salvation offered by the carpenter from Nazareth is not merely political liberation or military victory, but something far greater. Ben Hur movingly tells a story that undoubtedly happened time and again, in various ways, in the lives of those who met Jesus.

The animated Ben Hur is much shorter than its Oscar-winning predecessor, clocking in at less than an hour and a half. One reason for the shorter running time is the fact that the action sequences (particularly the sea battle and the chariot race), while expertly portrayed, are not given nearly as much screen time as in previous film versions. This is in keeping with Agamemnon’s stated mission of 'emphasizing story, structure and character over action or special effects.' Even the name, Agamemnon, hearkens back to the days of Greek drama, when Aristotle, in his Poetics, developed the six principles of drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Plot, that is, the agon, or dramatic development of the story, is more important than Spectacle, or what we today would call 'action scenes.' The new Ben Hur succeeds in this emphasis, and the Spectacle, when present, is always appropriate, and never gratuitously violent. As a side note, a film company, with stated goals like those of Agamemnon, is one that Christians should want to support, not merely because they sometimes produce films sympathetic with Christianity, but because they have the right perspective on art. And art, when it is well done, always points to the glory of God, whatever the thematic content.

And this is a fairly well-crafted piece of animated art. The 2D animation is not on the level of, say, the better Disney stuff, or Dreamworks's Prince of Egypt or Joseph: King of Dreams, but the interesting work is in the skillful blending of traditional and computer-generated animation. Character shots and close-ups are produced using traditional 2D animation (though enhanced by computer technology), while wider shots, battle scenes, crowd shots, etc., are 3D, CGI work. It's an interesting blend of techniques, though the obvious differences in appearance are sometimes jarring. The producers made a point of striving for historical accuracy, especially in recreations of the film’s various settings: Jerusalem, Rome, the galleys of a first century Roman war ship; all contributing to the movie’s overall effect of a good story, well-told.

The film is capably directed by William R. Kowalchuk, who provides an interesting Director’s Commentary on the DVD version, and Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser (co-founder with his father of Agamennon), serves as Executive Producer (movie trivia: shortly after he was born, Fraser played the part of Baby Moses in the classic movie, The Ten Commandments, in which his father, of course, played the part of the older Moses). Charlton Heston also narrates Ben Hur, and the DVD contains an interview with Mr. Heston, as well as the original trailer, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie.

The new script adaptation generally manages to avoid the dumbing-down that often accompanies the rendering of literature for youngsters. Screenwriter Jerome Gray crafted his script by returning to Wallace’s own novel, creating an entertaining version of the story, with some interesting departures from previous adaptations (the resolution of the Messala story-line, for instance), and while the revenge motif is somewhat down-played, it still looms large over the story, a temptation for Judah to overcome.

One of the delights of this version, and which in itself makes it a film worth seeing, is Charlton Heston’s reprisal of his famous role. Heston is a national treasure, certainly one of the greatest American actors, with an unequaled richness of voice that is a joy to hear. As many know, Mr Heston contracted Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and each new work by this legendary artist only increases in value. 'This wonderful story has been told many times in the last hundred years, once as a highly successful stage play and three times as a feature,' said Heston. 'Ben Hur is a classic tale of love, forgiveness and redemption, known throughout the world. I’m delighted to be able to bring it to family audiences in this marvelous new format.' And families everywhere will be delighted to see it, Mr Heston.

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