Add up the words Jesus, clay animation, and movie, and "cinematic excellence" may not be the result most viewers expect. For those of us with imaginations shaped for life by Sunday-school felt boards, clay animation may sound about as artistically exciting as watching homemade sock puppets reenact the separation of the sheep and the goats.

Well, fellow adobe-phobes, it's time to admit that with The Miracle Maker—which ABC will broadcast at 7 p.m. (EST) on April 23, Easter Sunday—a medium has come of age. Like Wallace & Gromit (PBS) and The PJs (Fox) before it, The Miracle Maker proves that clay animation's storytelling potential is as boundless as a talented artist's imagination.

Better still, The Miracle Maker tells its story without tampering with the basic Gospel accounts or sounding like the Royal Shakespeare Company. True, the voices include those of prominent British actors such as Ralph Fiennes (Jesus), Ian Holm (Pontius Pilate), Miranda Richardson (Mary Magdalene), and scenery-chewing David Thewlis (Judas Iscariot). But the British accents are muted rather than the "stained-glass voices" often heard in biblical dramas. In one whimsical touch, Peter's voice is noticeably Irish, setting him apart as he denies Jesus three times.


Judith Tukich, director of special projects at ABC in Los Angeles, knew the treasure that had landed on her desk when the distributor Artisan Entertainment sent over a copy of The Miracle Maker for her consideration. She has been on the job for 10 years, and watches about 20 movies in a typical month.

"Obviously I don't get excited about a lot of them," Tukich told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. "I'll never forget the day I popped that movie into my VCR. I ran down the hall to the Programming, Planning, and Scheduling Department."

Helped by Tukich's enthusiasm, The Miracle Maker met the approval of ABC's programmers. "In all the years I've worked here, this is one time I felt this job is a ministry. The Lord was on my side from day one with this one," she says.

The Miracle Maker's blend of clay animation, more conventional animated sketches, and computer effects creates transcendent images worthy of their subject matter. "You can do things with animation that you cannot do with live-action films," Tukich says. "You're not looking at Jeffrey Hunter or Robert Powell playing Jesus. You are watching the character."

The crucial images of The Miracle Maker—some of the most dramatic miracles in Jesus' life—live up to Tukich's billing. Jesus' baptism, with the booming voice of God saying "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," occurs suddenly, capturing the smallest bit of wonder that the eyewitnesses must have felt. Murray Watts' subtle screenplay gives a tender background to the relationship between Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist. "When we were children we played by this river," Jesus says as they walk into the Jordan. "Our mothers called and we ran to them. We followed them. Now there is another call—my Father in heaven—and I must follow."

Much of the story is told through the experiences of Tamar—daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus—whom Jesus raises from the dead. This dramatic device perfectly captures Jesus' preferential option for children. Animated sketches also portray nightmarish spirits tormenting Mary Magdalene until Jesus liberates her. Only a stonehearted materialist could fail to sense Mary's relief and gratitude.

The Miracle Maker is a wonder of international artistic cooperation. Before the fall of Communism, who would have dreamed that a team of 250 people would work for a company in Moscow known as Christmas Films to bring 12 clay figures of Jesus to life? The British Broadcasting Corp.'s unit in Wales also played a crucial role in producing the film.

Tukich hopes that within a few years The Miracle Maker will be as beloved to Easter TV audiences as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. "I want this film to be a hit," she says. "I want it to be a perennial on ABC."If that does not come to pass, then for once cheesy special effects will not be to blame.

Related Elsewhere

The official site of The Miracle Maker offers information about the film, a trailer, information about the cast (the human cast; there's very little about the clay) and characters, resources for churches and schools, e-cards, games, and other activities. (A warning: the site can be very slow at times.)

The BBC reports that the film is a hit in Britain, where it is showing in theaters.

Yesterday's Film Forum rounds up what other Christian critics are saying about The Miracle Maker.

The Miracle Maker won't be available for on video until September, but a few stores will let you preorder now.

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