Of Many Things

Channel surfing a few months ago, I was mildly astonished to come across a rerun of Davey and Goliath, the Eisenhower-era claymation series produced, as I recall, under the auspices of the Lutheran Church. For those of you who weren’t TV-addicted children in the 1960’s, Davey and Goliath focused on Davey, a young boy, and his surprisingly intelligent (talking) dog, Goliath. As the protagonists’ names would indicate, the themes of the Sunday morning show were heavily religious. Usually the plot line would run something like this: Davey’s parents tell him not to do something (don’t make fun of other children, don’t play near the well, don’t stay out too late). Davey, of course, would do it anyway and land in trouble (get into a fight; fall into the well; get lost). Goliath would then offer some rueful doggy comments. (Davey, your parents told you not to do this! he would say, making Goliath if not the smartest dog in the world, then at least the most annoying.)

Then, just when things seemed most hopeless, Davey’s problems would be resolved or he would be rescued by (a) his parents, (b) his goody-goody sister, (c) a fireman, (d) a policeman, or (e) his pastor. Finally, after a commercial break, the hapless Davey would be treated to a moral (It’s never right to make fun of other people!) courtesy of his long-suffering parents or, more likely, his somewhat know-it-all pastor.

I used to watch the shows less for the religious themes and more for the unintended humor. In one episode, for example, the boy and his dog are lost in the woods. (Davey seemed to divide his free time evenly between getting lost in the woods and falling into wells.) Goliath stumbles upon a deer, who gives him some advice about the fastest way out of the woods. When Goliath tells his master about this, Davey says, Don’t be silly Goliath, deer can’t talk! I remember thinking, even at age 10, that this was a rather strange thing to say to your talking dog.

Now I’m sure when these shows were first made they were the height of animatronic sophistication. But by the time I discovered them, say, around first holy Communion time, they already seemed dated and clunky. I did not count myself a fan.

So when I received a preview copy of ABC-TV’s new claymation movie entitled The Miracle Maker (Sunday, April 23, 7 p.m. ET) about the life of Christ, I was more than a little dubious. More talking deer? I wondered.

Butsurprisethis two-hour film, using the latest in clay animation and computer-generated effects, is superb. Featuring the voice of Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, the cast includes the voices of Julie Christie, William Hurt and Miranda Richardson. These marvelous actors, with their marvelous voices, lend surprising depth to what might otherwise be seen as just a children’s movie. Ralph Fiennes is particularly fine as Jesus, and his sonorous voice is able to convey both the gravitas needed to pronounce some of Jesus’ more profound lines as well as the familiarity required when speaking, for example, with Martha and Mary.

But it is the visual effects that are the most striking. The colors are bright and clear, and the scenery imaginativewhether we are by the shore in Galilee, at the Temple in Jerusalem or in the house of Jairus. After a few minutes one forgets that one is watching, after all, clay dolls, and the underlying story is able to shine through. Often, when Jesus is offering a parable, the film shifts seamlessly to straightforward animation. As Jesus begins the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, he idly traces a line in the sandwhich is cunningly transformed by animation into a deep ravine in which the events of the parable will unfold.

This delightful film is perfect for an Easter Sunday evening, particularly for those with children, and an ideal addition to any parish or school video library. It is intelligently written, well acted (or voiced) and surprisingly moving. All of this, and no talking deer. 

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