Ben-HurNew fantasy and religion Blu-rays both miss their marks

By Jim Bray
December 15, 2016

Movie and/or TV versions of two popular literary works show up on Blu-ray just in time for Christmas, one of which is an interesting attempt while the other is a misguided return to previously and better exploited waters.

The first, the Shannara Chronicles, takes a series of fantasy novels, adds some unnecessary (and typical) political correctness that also leads to a suspension of one's suspension of disbelief, resulting in a mixed bag that's interesting but ultimately empty. The second, the new Ben-Hur remake, is apparently an attempt to make Lew Wallace' classic "Tale of the Christ" accessible to today's short attention span folk who may not have ability or desire to sit through the nearly four hours required to watch the epic 1959 classic.  

Let's tackle Ben-Hur first, starting with a list of names: William Wyler. Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Frank Thring, Miklos Rozsa. These names represent a few of the many reasons why the 2106 Ben-Hur failed; they also indicate some of the reasons William Wyler's 1959 masterpiece shouldn't have been remade, because it's about as perfect as a motion picture can be.

I must admit my prejudices going in. I love the William Wyler Ben-Hur. It's probably number one on my list of "desert island discs," and was the first movie I can remember that enthralled me so much I ended up seeing it at least 10 times in the theatre - and this is after I missed its initial release by some 10 years.

Wyler's Ben-Hur is a big movie, a huge widescreen epic the type of which they don't make anymore. If you don't believe me, just watch this new Timur Bekmambetov-helmed version, which manages to screw up the Tale of the Christ in about half the running time it took Wyler to tell the "same" tale so wonderfully.

Wyler's Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars back in the day, and in my never humble opinion it deserved every one of them. It took nearly 50 years for another film to win that many Oscars (James Cameron's 1997 Titanic which, while a great movie, doesn't come close to Ben-Hur's quality), and then it took only a few years for another film to repeat that feat (Peter Jackson's "Return of the King," which deserved it more than Titanic did. Does this mean there isn't as much quality competition these days? You be the judge.

This new Ben-Hur looks and feels like a TV movie of the week. Oh, the production values are fine, thanks to the digital technology that makes epics more affordable these days. But rather than using the technology to bring us an eye popping cast of thousands film as in Wyler's work, we have a more intimate, closely shot film that mostly eschews spectacle except for the chariot race, in which the cast of thousands is very digital.

The only cast member I recognized in the new Hur was Morgan Freeman, who plays the role that won Hugh Griffith his Oscar in 1959. Then, the character was an Arab sheik but now he's an African who gets more screen time and does far less (other than being a mentor to Judah Ben-Hur) than Griffith did in his remarkably comedic performance.

Freeman is a great actor, but like the rest of this Ben-Hur he's wasted - and he gives a one-note performance that isn't up to his usual standards. Take that and multiply it across the cast and you have an epic wannabe that just isn't.

The best thing about the new Ben-Hur is the iconic chariot race, but even here they've let me down. A lot of it is great - but the best shots it look almost as if they just Photoshopped the new actors into the old ones (if only they'd done that for the rest of the film!). And when they have made changes, they're often obvious CG shots that merely take the original shot or sequence and up its visual excitement without adding anything important - such as a chariot taking a corner on two wheels or Judah's "big bump" being blown up into one that's unbelievable. 

And instead of the classic battle between Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Tobey Kebbell) that culminates in Messala's messy exit from the race, they extend it to add part where Judah's being dragged behind his chariot, his legs almost being pounded by Messala's horses' hooves. It would have behooved them to make Judah less like Indiana Jones and more like, well, a competent charioteer (it appears this is his first race in this version other than his long gone childhood jousts with young Messala).

This version of Ben-Hur apparently was sourced more from the original Wallace novel than did Wyler's, but since I haven't read the book I have no way of knowing if this is true. Nothing wrong with going back to the original source, but all they've succeeded in doing here is paint a moustache onto William Wyler's Mona Lisa. Even the character of Jesus (whose face we never see in the Wyler version but whose fingerprints are all over Judah's quest) is portrayed here more as an aside character (who has no screen presence) who shows up, tosses out a few words of wisdom, and then is gone.  

I admit the crucifixion scene was handled fairly movingly, but the whole "Tale of the Christ" aspect here seems in the background, as if the topic of religion is something Hollywood isn't supposed to touch unless the religious folks are being portrayed as knuckle-dragging redneck Christian whackos. This is surprising considering the track record of the producers, but it's certainly the impression I got.

As a Blu-ray, this Ben-Hur is less of a travesty. The 1080p picture quality is actually very good, as you'd expect from a modern film. Ditto for the DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track, which is dynamic and immersive - everything the film isn't.

There are some extras, too, including one on filming the iconic chariot race as well as the history of the Tale of the Christ from its origins on the word processor, well, pen, of Lew Wallace. There's also a feature on the cast, one that's as forgettable as their performances, and some extended scenes and music videos.

I'd have to give the producers a B for Effort, but if you want to see the definitive Ben-Hur (and you should!), get a copy of the 1959 version (the silent version is darn good, too). I saw the 1959 version Blu-ray in a bargain bin the other day and would have bought it if I didn't already have the definitive, remastered boxed set in a place of honour in my library. And that version also comes with the silent film version that's quite spectacular for its era.

Shame of Shannara

Meanwhile, MTV has gotten into the fictional series market (well, it may have been there before but I haven't paid any attention to MTV since it was actually "music television") with The Shannara Chronicles, an epic fantasy series based - apparently loosely - on the series of Shannara books by Terry Brooks.

Shannara ChroniclesI read the first book, Sword of Shannara, years ago and enjoyed it, though it's no substitute for classics such as "The Lord of the Rings" or the more modern Sword of Truth novels. And with the Shannara Chronicles TV series, the producers have tried to straddle the fantasy/sci-fi divide by setting the movie on our earth, but thousands of years in the future. I don't remember this being the case in Sword of Shannara, but I've forgotten most of what I read in that book, such was its lasting impact.

Another reason I think the producers may have changed the setting is that, in typical liberal Hollywood tradition, this earth is a remnant of an ancient human civilization (ours) that destroyed itself. And now, despite that fact that it's totally irrelevant to each of the 10 episodes except, perhaps, one, we see old rusted out cars and other ancient technology crop up periodically, for no apparent reason.

Heck, the one episode that actually has characters that hearken back to "old earth" (and they have guns instead of swords!) even has one of my ancient Sansui loudspeakers in the background of one scene. That surely didn't help me suspend my disbelief!

All that aside, the rather derivative story line - that takes bits of Avatar and many other sci-fi and fantasy stories and files the serial numbers off of them - revolves around your typical spunky princess (named Amberle, and played well by Poppy Drayton) who, with a young yokel named Wil (Austin Butler), and a "rover" named Eretria (Ivana Baqero), sally forth on a quest to save the Four Lands from an army of rampaging demons.

They're aided by a magician/mentor named Obi-wan Kenobi - oops, sorry, Gandalf - oops, sorry Allanon (Manu Bennett who, with John Rhys-Davies are the best thespians in the series). Rhys-Davies, who dies all too soon thereby depriving viewers of his gravitas, is the king of the land that's home to a tree called the Ellcrys whose continuing life apparently keeps the demons from crossing into the "real" world. He sends the four protagonists on their mission to save the Four Lands by, I think, finding new leaves to glue onto the Ellcrys. Or something like that.

It plays out better than it sounds for sure, but there are still some logical kinks to work out for the second season.

The Shannara Chronicles isn't as bad as I make out and visually it's very good - better in some ways than the new Ben-Hur. The Four Lands are rendered beautifully, though it looks as if they were - let's say "inspired" -  by Avatar's Pandora. It doesn't hurt that they shot the series in gorgeous New Zealand, whose many different landscapes offer producers a lot of choice opportunities.

Alas, there's excessively graphic violence in some places and a probably-mandatory in today's Hollywood homo/bi-sexual scene (well, there isn't really any sex…) as well as a gratuitous sex scene between the leads that adds nothing to the story and doesn't even feature on-screen nudity (so what was the point?).

That said, I'll probably watch season two when it comes out, which is more than I can say about re-visiting the new Ben-Hur.

The Shannara season comes on two Blu-rays and the 1080p picture and Dolby TrueHD sound quality are excellent. Extras include a behind the scenes short (about 18 minutes), and three very short shorts, one that looks at the making of the head demon, an interview with author Terry Brooks and a far too short "Exploring New Zealand" featurette that's a real waste of time if you're looking for a Kiwi travelogue. There's also a little booklet in the case that gives some background into the Shannara universe.

The Shannara Chronicles is very flawed, but surprisingly watchable as long as you don't expect anything thought provoking.

Copyright 2016 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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