DVD review: 'The Lion of Judah.' AMG Films. 87 minutes.
Beyond "children's animation," The Lion of Judah is hard to categorize. I wanted to like it for the eloquence it eventually shows, and the rather clever allegorization of the gospel. I wanted to diss it for taking so long to get there, beyond the dumb action and trite dialogue.
The story starts in a first-century stable in Bethlehem, home of a wise old hen, a crude pig, a matronly cow, a smart-talking rat, a rooster with ADD, and a horse who's cowardly enough to embarrass the lion in The Wizard of Oz.
Into this motley lot scampers a spunky lamb named Judah: "I'm a lion -- Rarrrrr!" Judah says he's destined to "set everyone free," but he is shortly boxed up and taken to Jerusalem.
The other animals figure out why: With Passover approaching, Judah is likely the next sacrifice at the great Temple. And they know who can decree the lamb's pardon. See, this is the same stable where the baby Jesus was born, more than 30 years before. (Yeah, I know, but if you can suspend disbelief about talking animals, you can forgo asking how barnyard animals can live three decades.) They set out for Jerusalem to find the king.
Along the way, they meet other creatures. There's a couple of pompous, pharisaical pigeons who can't stand the rat. There's a flock of ravens who call themselves the "Unclean" gang, as a side lesson on egalitarianism. And there's a cynical, streetwise donkey colt who laments the power that humans hold over his life. It's not hard to guess who gets to meet Jesus first.
Artistically, The Lion of Judah is a very mixed bag. The wood and stone textures are nicely rendered. The animal expressions are evocative and their actions are smooth, but their feet don't leave tracks. And speaking of tracks, the background music often lapses into bland Christian pop. The best sequence is when the camera follows the blackbirds through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for Judah.
Voice-wise, the best is Georgina Cordova as the lamb. A veteran of other animated features, including The Tale of Despereaux and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, she adds just the right bite and perkiness. Michael Madsen, from Kill Bill and Donnie Brasco, is also good as the gruff Mafioso-like raven boss. Sandi Patty as the cow is gentle but a bit snooty. Ernest Borgnine is largely wasted as the rat.
Some of the story is interesting, for someone who can tell the efforts at recasting Bible stories allegorically. The pacing, though, is rather uneven. Much of it is unfunny and uninvolving. And whenever it slows, one of the animals jumps or trips or runs into a wall or somehow gets thrown through the air.
Eventually they find the lamb, but too late: He's in the Temple yard, being prepped for sacrifice. Meanwhile, Jesus is being led to Calvary to be crucified. The King can't save himself, let alone a lamb. Or can he?
The comparison of the animal sacrifice with the death of what the Bible calls the "Lamb of God" is an easy and obvious one. But for viewers who weren't brought up in church, or may not have attended lately, will it be as evident?
Like most Christian forays into various genres, The Lion of Judah is a good first effort. But Christian producers often don't have the time and talent and effort to compete with their secular counterparts, in this case Pixar and Dreamworks. Thus far, the main Christian group to pull off CGI is the one that made VeggieTales. And they sold out to a network, which could foot the bills, but watered down the Christian message.
After its national theater run, the film is to be released on DVD this fall by the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group. If you want to check it out further, visit http://www.lionofjudahthemovie.com/.