"Ben-Hur" meets "Old MacDonald" in "The Lion of Judah," a production from a company called Animated Family Films.
If you suspect "Family" is a code word for "Christian," you are correct, because this is a computer-generated cartoon in which one of the most significant utterances in Western civilization -- "It is finished," the final words of Christ on the cross, according to the Gospel of John -- occurs before an audience consisting of a horse, a cow, an ass, a pig, a rat, a chicken and a couple of ravens.
When Judah the Lamb is taken by the townspeople to become a sacrifice, his six new friends from a Bethlehem stable have to go to ...
Rating: PG for some mild thematic elements
Length: 87 minutes
Released: June 3, 2011 Limited
Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Leon Clingman, Georgina Cordova, Scott Eastwood, Samantha Gray
Director: Deryck Broom, Roger Hawkins
Writer: Brent Dawes
By this time in the narrative, these increasingly traumatized barnyard pals already have witnessed Jesus' cleansing of the temple, his forced carrying of the cross, his whipping and the Crucifixion itself (foreshadowed by the movie's opening shot of nails being driven into wood). The film's website calls "The Lion of Judah" the "first ever 3-D animated, family-friendly, faith-based movie," but you may call it "The Passion of the Christ" meets "Babe."
Borderline unwatchable due to the ugliness of the animation and the clumsiness of the storytelling, "The Lion of Judah" at least becomes jaw-droppingly bizarre after it abandons its "Hee Haw"-in-the-Holy Land critter comedy to focus on its evangelical message and follow its zoo's-who cast of characters from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Golgotha to the tomb of Jesus, where a little lost lamb who thinks he's a lion -- the symbolic title character -- is the most faithful witness of what will come to be called the Easter miracle.
Another miracle will occur if this film -- which opens today in about 80 theaters nationwide, including six in the Memphis area -- is embraced by children who have experienced the far more sophisticated animation produced by Pixar and DreamWorks. "The Lion of Judah" is more likely to send youngsters fleeing to "Kung Fu Panda 2" than to church.
Scripted by Brent Dawes and directed by Deryck Broom and Roger Hawkins, with amateurish animation produced in South Africa, the film -- unlike its ass character, cleverly named Jack, who provides Jesus with his famous ride into Jerusalem -- staggers under the weight of its burdens. One of these is the strain of stretching about a half-hour's worth of farm-animal antics and dubious allegory to almost 90 minutes of screen time.
The notion of presenting the story of Jesus to young viewers through the eyes of animal witnesses is not a bad one. (In fact, it's been done several times before, perhaps most popularly in the 1977 Rankin-Bass TV special "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.") But the movie is so poorly executed that any impact it has on a moviegoer can be attributed entirely to the viewer's pre-existing connection to the subject matter. You may be moved and awed by the ideas at work here, but you won't be moved -- much less awed -- by the movie itself.
Much of the first half of the film is almost incomprehensible, as the indifferently characterized animals -- including a rat voiced by "Willard" star Ernest Borgnine -- appear shocked by the idea that a Passover lamb is destined to be eaten. When the lamb is crated off for Jerusalem, the other animals follow, hoping to rescue their new friend.
Eventually, the film tips its New Testament hat and reveals that its mooing, grunting, neighing ensemble was present at history's first Nativity scene. "Behold the Lamb of God," intones a sage chicken, in a flashback to the birth of the famous baby. "Mary had a little lamb?" quips a zany rooster.
Unfortunately, "The Lion of Judah" doesn't entirely shun the influence of such secular predecessors as "Shrek": The movie is less than nine minutes old before the pig contributes some noisy flatulence humor. Walter Elias Disney and C.S. Lewis, forgive them, for they know now what they do. E-i-e-i-o.
Incidentally, "The Lion of Judah" soundtrack album, apparently available only as a digital download, features a track not in the film, "Once Upon a Stable," with vocals by Colby Osborn, a worship leader at Bellevue Baptist Church.
-- John Beifuss: (901) 529-2394