The book's original illustrations were by the great Quentin Blake, but Blake wasn't involved in this animated re-telling which came from a partnership between Illuminated Films, Jerusalem Productions and the BBC. As a result the characters are rendered rather differently from the book giving the new work a fresh feel and severing the tie with the original novel. There are some fairly bold choices in this respect as well. The sharp angular lines used for the angels contrast with the softer more rounded illustration for the human characters. It emphasises the other worldliness of the celestial visitors, as well as the fact that they have an importance, of sorts, as messengers of the king (of kings).
The other interesting decision regarding the animation is the way figures often hold more or less the same pose for a while before shifting to a new position. This gives the film the feel of an animate book, reminding viewers of the piece's literary roots.
For a humblish project such as this, the cast list is certainly impressive. The leading character, Amos, appears as an aging grandfather recounting the most singular moment from his childhood and the elderly Amos is voiced by Michael Gambon, in what will probably not be his most widely appreciated voice work on an animated children's film in 2014 (he's also in Paddington). Also involved are Juliet Stevenson as Mary, Colin McFarlane(Commissioner Loeb in The Dark Knight) as Joseph and Dominic Cooper (Captain America) as the Angel Gabriel.
As a production it's charming enough. Accessible for the younger children and generating a bit of extra interest for children up to pre-teens. However, it rather lacks having anything of substance to say about the Christmas story. Jesus is portrayed as a king but his supposed divine origins are rather watered down for a story based on an angelic visitation. Furthermore his ability to change the world is reduced simply to his ability to "bring us love, through which we will at last have peace and goodwill on Earth" and to "show us a better way of living". There's much truth in that of course, but "love" existed long before Jesus was born and hasn't yet brought any significant measure of peace. It's the significance of Jesus identity which makes the love Jesus embodies special, but the BBC's a bit too PC to mention all that. Indeed, the word "God" doesn't really feature at all.
The other notable weakness concerns the flashback structure, whereby the story is retold by the now elderly Amos. Despite the fact that Amos has kept in touch with Jesus' life as a adult he has never mentioned these events to anyone which contrasts rather strongly with the reaction of the shepherds in Luke. Did these amazing events change Amos' life at all? We're given no indication. It also leaves the "grandfather" section of the story in a time strangely unaffected by Jesus's life and death.
These shouldn't overlook the film's strengths. In addition to the animation there are also a few good lines for the adults to enjoy too, and a good bit of adventure. Indeed children will find it easy to relate to Amos - there's a good deal of character development is a relatively short period of time. The film also manages to walk the line between the best and worst of humanity's potential. Even if the final lesson "you have to keep believing in yourself" is a bit mawkish On Angel Wings will provide many families a good way to think about the true meaning of Christmas.
On Angel Wings is available on BBC iPlayer until the 24th January 2015. The BBC website also features an article by Michael Morpurgo, some character profiles, clips and another article on the film. More details are available from the film's official website.
Labels: Nativity - Mary Joseph