While Dinosaur delivers amazing special effects, Center Stage offers spectacular dancing, and Small Time Crooks features big-time laughs, Christian critics are more enthralled by the meaty story of The Big Kahuna, which wrestles with the role of one's Christian faith in the everyday business world.
In a nutshell: Dinosaur features special effects you've never seenin a story you've seen one time too many. Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com calls Dinosaur's visuals "the best that human technology has to offer a remarkable blend of computer animation and digitally enhanced photography." The U.S. Catholic Conference marvels that the "spectacular computer-generated digital images are extraordinarily lifelike." Yet most critics agreed with J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth, who said "someone forgot to tell the producers that beautiful images alone do not make a compelling story." Dinosaur recycles earlier Disney films like Bambi and Tarzan, as a baby dino whose mother was killed grows up among a different species. Many were willing to recommend the film, despite its unoriginality, because of its family-friendly appeal; Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser says the film "offers adolescents and adults with meager expectations a reasonably enjoyable, morally grounded 80 minutes of distraction." (I'm guessing Disney doesn't reprint that endorsement in its ads.) Some recommendations were stronger, pointing out the admirable lessons of "taking care of those who are weaker" (Movieguide), "standing up for what you believe in" (Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure), and "how compassion and hope are important and rewarded" (Dove Foundation)although the movie's PG violence detracted somewhat from their enthusiasm. It was actually mainstream critic Michael Sragow of Salon.com who most loudly proclaimed the Christian emphasis of Dinosaur, arguing that the protagonist dino brings a "Judeo-Christian tradition into the dinosaur worldview and win[s] all the herbivores away from the cruel Darwinian fatalism of the bullying herd chief." Christian reviewers only mentioned that "evolution theories are not overtly present" (John Adair of Preview). While many first-look reviews of Gladiator were pleased to find art-house thoughtfulness at the center of the popcorn-entertainment trappings, later Christian reviews have been less generous toward its serious side. Josh Spencer of Stranger Things magazine calls the film's inclusion "of 'deep' content" an effort to disguise its "exploitation of violent combat in order to make millions of dollars." Focus on the Family's Tom Neven says it amounts to little more than "a rehash of the Ben-Hur storywithout the redemptive ending." Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Emmett W. Elliott, perhaps thinking of that biblically minded Best-Picture winner, was disappointed that Gladiator would "censor any mention of Christianity in a time when Christianity was sweeping across Rome." That omission didn't bother Christian History assistant editor Elesha Coffman, who says on ChristianityToday.com: "There aren't any Christians in Gladiator, but I don't think this is a major oversight. Persecution wasn't particularly severe under [emperors] Marcus or Commodus." But there were plenty of historical facts distorted for the film, which she details in her informative coverage, including the depiction of Marcus Aurelius being "so revolutionary as to plan the rise of the Senate at the expense of his son's reign. In fact, contra the film, Marcus and Commodus ruled together from 177 to 180." Fans of the movie were pleased that, if history was going to be rewritten, at least nobility of spirit was emphasized. "The film displays men of courage fighting for freedom and justice," praises the Dove Foundation. Movies and Ministry's Doug Cummings appreciated the emphasis on the protagonist's spirituality. "Maximus prays to various gods and yearns to be reunited with his loved ones. Images of 'home' and the afterlife are combined into one, and the movie impressively suggests a higher reality that ultimately relays justice."The raunchy, low-budget sex comedy Road Trip made a surprising showing this weekend, opening to a $15.5 million haul and largely positive mainstream reviews. Christian critics, however, could not have been more outraged at the film, which features a college student who cheats on his longtime girlfriend, accidentally mails her a videotape of the act, and takes a road trip with his pals to intercept the evidence. The U.S. Catholic Conference says it's merely an "onslaught of tedious vulgarities and dumb sight gags." The Dove Foundation calls it "void of morals or any positive life-lesson," and Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com bristles at the depiction of "self-destructive behavior from a testosterone-filled, hormonally unbalanced" group. Paul Bicking of Preview was particularly bothered by its "warped discussion of what constitutes cheating in a relationship," which the production notes describe as: "It's not cheating if you're in different area codes. It's not cheating if you're too wasted to remember it, because if you can't remember it, it never really took place. It's not cheating if you're with two people at the same time, because they cancel each other out." Mainstream critics were largely unaware this might bother people. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times in fact praises the "filmmakers' ability to view life with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality." It's official, folks: fidelity has been downgraded to sentiment.
The garishly awful Battlefield Earth has taken such drubbing from mainstream critics ( The New York Times says it "may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century") and movie fans (attendance dropped a disastrous 67 percent in its second weekend), that it seems almost cruel to pour salt on those wounds by recounting the many insults it endured at the hands of Christian reviewers. Suffice it to say that the sci-fi adventure, which tells of a human slave who works to overthrow the reign of powerful alien overlords known as Psychlos, is "two hours of pain and agony" (Crosswalk.com's Holly McClure) where "nonsense proceeds at an exponential rate" (Emmett W. Elliott of Christian Spotlight) as if "trying to irritate people" (Planet Wisdom). The only bright spot Christian critics saw was that the film, which was adapted from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi novel and stars outspoken Scientologist John Travolta, didn't proselytize. "Battlefield Earth is not a poster ad for Scientology," says Movieguide, echoing the consensus and putting to rest fears that many moviegoers, Christian and otherwise, had expressed in months past. For the curious, World magazine revealed where the link between fiction and religion was supposed to lie: "Some claim the Psychlos are Hubbard's euphemism for mental health professionals, whose psychotherapy competes with his Dianetics."Because of his reputation as a serious artist who investigates sex, God, and art, Woody Allen has found himself practically apologizing to critics for Small Time Crooks, a movie he calls "frivolous fun." But he needn't protest to Christian reviewers, who found his latest comedy to be much more palatable than his typical, amoral fare. Phil Boatwright of the Dove Foundation says "I laughed my head off [in this] very funny homage to Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners. There is even a moral to this story: wealth doesn't bring happiness." The film focuses on an inept ex-con, Ray (Allen), and his wife, Frenchie (Tracey Ullman), as they scheme to pull off a huge heist. "The antics of Ray and his cohorts bumbling and stumbling through the attempted bank robbery, Frenchie's comical one-liners, and Elaine May as Frenchie's dim-witted cousin make this a real entertainment gem," says Preview's Mary Draughon. She notes that unlike most Allen films, "Small Time Crooks has no sex or sexually suggestive material." The U.S. Catholic Conference was less eager to praise, however, calling it a "genial if forgettable tale" and docking points for its "comic treatment of crime."The makers of Center Stage would have made critics happier by excising all plot in favor of dance numbers. This backstage look at the competitive world of ballet dancing features "wonderful music and incredible new styles of dance," says Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com, "which have truly changed and are more exciting than I've ever seen before." Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott praises one experimental number that "combines the best of jazz, rock and classical forms [and] is simply electric, exploding off the screen with a highly charged energy. [Dance] can express the inner joy and emotion more dynamically than any other art form," he says, citing the Bible's many exhortations to dance. But the ordinary story found between the performances drew fewer accolades. The U.S. Catholic Conference says the "musty narrative is cluttered with predictable subplots about eating disorders, parental pressures and teen-age self-doubt," and Movieguide groaned at the "plot and characters stolen from teen melodramas like TV's Beverly Hills 90210." Countering the majority, Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Kristina Jamesa ballet dancer and owner of a Christian ballet studiowrites that Center Stage accurately "depicts the fairy tale ballerina's world as the hard life it really is." Her concern is instead with "the sexual scenes and adult content," which makes it unfit for "any of my students to see."Reviews of the kidnapping comedy Screwed place it in competition for the year's worst; right now it's matching Battlefield Earth in degree of abhorrence but losing badly in volume. The Dove Foundation's Phil Boatwright deadpans, "I forget, isn't a comedy supposed to be funny?" and Preview's John Evans recommends you "avoid this one like the plague."
While Christian critics most often try to view a particular movie through the lens of their beliefs, The Big Kahuna is a rare film that is showing reviewers their beliefs through the lens of a movie. The conversation-driven drama about three salesmenworkaholic Larry (Kevin Spacey), world-weary Phil (Danny DeVito) and young upstart Bob (Peter Facinelli)revolves around Bob's Christian faith and how it manifests itself in his daily work environment. The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks outlines the dilemma like this: "If Bob is being paid to help sell lubricant, has he behaved unethically if he ignores that assignment to focus on a 'higher calling'? Or has Larry become so obsessed with landing a big account that he's lost sight of the bigger picturethat a man's soul might be more important than his signature?" The film gives weight to both arguments, allowing Bob to defend his faith while also leaving him room to grow. "Bob faces some verbal attacks and is portrayed as naïve," says Movieguide, "but is a morally grounded strong witness for Christ. He is rebuked not for what he believes, but for his inability to see that other things are important to some people." Phil Boatwright of the Dove Foundation identified with that shortcoming: "As a Christian I was reminded not to be judgmental. We Christians can come across a bit too self-righteous by not doing this and not saying that. Sometimes we forget to practice Christ's most important commandmentslove God and love each other." In the same vein, a thread at the OnFilm discussion group reveals some personal accounts of Christian critics who've been in Bob's shoes and struggled to treat coworkers as more than just "projects." Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com also sees the potential for "good insight," urging parents "to take their mature teenage sons to see this movie and discuss the moral, ethical and religious issues with them." Preview's John Adair says The Big Kahuna's a keeper, both because it has ample food for thought and because Bob's "portrayal is one of the more realistic of a Christian on the big screen in recent memory," whose "faith impacts his entire life." Strangely, mainstream reviewer Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times is one of few secular critics to acknowledge this rather explicit fact. "You can search the reviews in vain for any mention of Jesus Christ," he says. "Most of the reviewers seem to have forgotten that Bob is born again. Maybe it never registered. That underlines how, once you sign on to a belief system, you see everything through that prism, and anything outside it becomes invisible." Rather, Christians have been the most willing to step outside their prism and learn from this film.
Steve Lansingh is editor ofthefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: U-571, Frequency, Where the Heart Is, and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.
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