Business was booming over the holidays as healthy sales helped propel 1999's box office take to a new high. For those who avoided the holiday rush, here's the lowdown from Christian critics on this weekend's most popular films—including several worthwhile family films and a couple of impressive, thoughtful features for Christian adults.

Stuart Little ($11.2 million)

This adaptation of E.B. White's 1945 children's story continues to dominate the box office and continues to elicit superlatives from Christian critics: "This is one little that deserves to go really big," raves Focus on the Family's Bob Waliszewski. World notes the film's worthy message that "in any family, every member is important." The U.S. Catholic Conference lauds this "cheery tale [with] ample visual appeal," yet warns that "purists may find the neatly happy ending a cop-out to the author's more probing tale of self-discovery." Angela Leigh, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight, didn't find the movie's storyline alterations problematic; she both praised the film for its "loving family portrayed so respectfully" and for motivating her family "to dust off our old paperback and sit down together as a family to re-read an old favorite."

The Green Mile ($9.7 million)

Tom Hanks' latest, a Depression-era prison drama about a miracle-worker on death row, has remained buoyant at the box office after more than a month of release, despite mixed reviews from both Christian and mainstream critics. (Check out our earlier coverage from mid- and late December.) Two new reviews available this week were fairly indicative of the opinion split: The U.S. Catholic Conference complimented the film for "affecting character studies of good and evil men with spiritual undertones and a sobering depiction of capital punishment." But World didn't find the spiritual angle resonant, instead calling it "pop supernaturalism."

The Talented Mr. Ripley ($9.3 million)

The story of a reluctant killer who impersonates his victim to enter high society has not earned impressive marks among Christian critics. Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family found it "disturbing how this film manipulates the audience into sympathizing with Tom Ripley. … The story and its characters are constructed so that we see Tom as disturbed and unloved—a victim as much as a predator." World echoed that sentiment in a more whimsical summary: "Murder isn't so bad, as long as you have a soft side and think you have a good reason for doing it." Christian Spotlight guest critic Hillari Hunter thought the film was "very creepy," although she noted the positive message that "coveting what another has … leads to nothing but pain." You'd have to wander over to mainstream reviews to find critics in love with the film; you'd also find there some insightful commentary on the nature of evil. Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News writes, noting that Ripley remains haunted by his actions, "I love the fact that evil is sometimes punished by the fact that evil is merely evil and is by nature never truly satisfied."

Article continues below

Any Given Sunday ($8.8 million)

Opening weekend distaste for Oliver Stone's pro-football expose gave way to quite a few positive notices from Christian critics. Movieguide chides the film for its foul language but notes its "moral center," exploring "the themes of tradition, change, and conflict between the individual and the team." Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Andrew Hager compliments the film's explorations of "the pressures of aging" and "the importance of teamwork," as it "uses football as a metaphor for life." On the other hand, a pair of reviews at The Phantom Tollbooth find the movie's themes rather shallow: "Besides the intersection of sports and violence, it's not exactly clear what Stone is after," writes J. Robert Parks. But that's no reason to avoid the movie, he argues. "Without any compelling philosophy, Any Given Sunday is left to win or lose on the basis of its story. Fortunately, it's a good one." The second review, by Art Hennessey, offers the same thoughts: "What we are given is an original and exhilarating movie wrapped around a hollow and clichéd story."

Galaxy Quest ($8 million)

Since no new reviews of Galaxy Quest are available this week, I'll offer my thoughts on this Star Trek parody, in which the bickering cast of a cheesy Trek-like TV show have to perform their roles in a real intergalactic battle. I was particularly impressed with the measure of redemption the characters are given, as the actors embrace their roles to become their best selves. Like Being John Malkovich, this movie asks to what degree you become what you pretend to be—a question that affects not only actors but all of us who live life behind masks. It also succeeds admirably in its prime directive (sorry, couldn't resist): to get you laughing. Galaxy Quest features brilliantly funny performances, especially from Tony Shaloub and Sam Rockwell, and a sharply written script that mines laughs from both details and from the bigger picture. As a certified Trek fan, I enjoyed the opportunity to laugh at myself and the seriousness with which I sometimes greet science fiction.

Article continues below

Beyond the Top Ten

Sixth-place finisher Toy Story 2 continues to climb its way up the charts of domestic blockbusters, passing Aladdin to become the second-highest grossing animated film (trailing The Lion King). Christian critics have had nothing but kind words for the heartfelt comedy, which Peter T. Chattaway of B.C. Christian News calls "downright moving in a way the original film was not." He also praises the film's metaphoric quality: "To use this film's terminology, we feel alive because that is how our God sees us, and life is worth living because we have been loved, and because we have made our Creator happy." Green Lake Reflections' Jeffrey Overstreet named the film the year's best (along with The Iron Giant), citing its focus on "appreciating our belongings for their meaningfulness to us rather than for their monetary value." World found yet another theme worth lauding—that "friendship and loyalty are more important that fame and popularity."Depending on whom you listen to, Magnolia is either one of this year's most intriguing, brilliant films or one of the most reprehensible. The movie, which expanded into wider release this weekend and grabbed a seventh-place finish, drew strongly worded reviews from Christian critics on both ends of the spectrum. David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus called it "one of the most incredible films I have ever seen. … In fact, I got a cup of coffee, found a private table in a San Francisco restaurant and just thought about what I had seen." He was particularly impressed with the "collusion of coincidence, chance, human action, past history and divine intervention. [This] is a story about putting things right again. About seeking forgiveness and redemption." Movieguide was also enthusiastic about the picture—"one of the best-directed and most original movies of the year"—noting the film has an explicit Christian worldview embodied in one of its characters, and praising the film's "scenes of catharsis, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and a smile of hope." The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks elucidates further: "Each character in Magnolia is looking for some sort of salvation, some way of redeeming what's been lost. While not all succeed, their journeys and struggles make for a powerful story." Jeffrey Overstreet of Green Lake Reflections adds that these stories teach truth: "These characters will stick in your mind. And the truths that bring them from action to consequences are as basic and relevant as the principles at work in Jesus' own parables." But Paul Bicking of Preview was simply left bewildered by the plethora of characters and the lack of focus. "This three-hour story confuses as it jumps from character to character and may only attract fans of the stars." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott agrees that "there is simply too much going on in this movie," and wishes simply "that the stories were worth the telling." Elliott and Bicking also objected to a "swamp" of objectionable material, which even those who loved the film warn is quite extreme.In eighth place is Bicentennial Man, a comic retelling of Issac Asimov's short story The Positronic Man, which follows a robot's quest to become more human. Michael Elliott of Movie Parables was skeptical of the premise, asking: "A robot/android with a positronic brain who desperately wants to know what it is to be human? Didn't we see this done (and done better) on TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation?" But Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Timothy Blaisdell calls that an ignorant reaction. "That's like picking up a copy of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and saying it's a rip-off of the latest romance film you happened to have seen! Bicentennial Man is a science fiction classic. When first published, it was unique and the theme of what it means to be a human being was unusual and imaginative." David Bruce, editor of Hollywood Jesus, agreed the film is "a good discussion starter on a subject that has been discussed by some of the best minds throughout the centuries—What does it mean to be human?" But the movie itself doesn't seem to provide any answers, Bruce says: "Andrew [the robot] never seems to have a human soul, rather, just the qualities of a human soul." Other Christian critics concur. Preview's John Evans says "The idea of a robot becoming human implies that man can create life and equates life with a series of electronic pulses," and Steven Issac of Focus on the Family warns that the movie "may lead some children to conclude that one's soul is less a gift from God than an evolved state of being."The sleeper hit Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo has now tripled its $18 million production cost as it collected enough receipts to finish in ninth place this weekend. No new Christian reviews were available this week—presumably critics are busying themselves screening Oscar contenders instead—but you can find our earlier coverage of the surprisingly upbeat reviews here.Opening in a weak tenth place is Snow Falling on Cedars, which not only missed with audiences but with mainstream critics. (David Ansen of Newsweek said it's "all shots and no scenes, which is nice for a picture book but deadly for drama. … The actors, posed like models, rarely get to interact.") Unfazed by this tepid reaction, Christian reviewers trumpeted the richness of this adaptation of David Guterson's novel, which chronicles an American journalist's role in the murder trial of a Japanese man who has married the journalist's ex-lover. Previews John Adair praises it as a "gripping and emotional story … about forgiveness and love for other human beings, no matter what their race." Movieguide concurs, complimenting the telling of "a strong narrative in intricate detail, with themes of forgiveness, justice, truth, and racial tolerance. … It points to noble Christian virtues which eventually are victorious." Sarah Barnett of Culture@Home felt the movie lacked the depth of the book, but nevertheless found it enjoyable—"a very beautiful-looking film with a sense of bittersweet yearning."Steve Lansingh is editor, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Article continues below
Article continues below