An Edifying and Spiritually Commendable Adaptation with Uneven Execution
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian movie with no shortage of ambition. This computer-animated feature, written and directed by Robert Fernandez, dares to adapt John Bunyan’s allegorical fantasy novel of the same name, which has riveted and intrigued Christian readers ever since first being published in 1678. What is more, Fernandez and his producing partner Steve Cleary create their Pilgrim’s Progress on a shoestring budget so that the movie will be largely available free to Christians throughout the world (including those in countries hostile to their faith).
As in the book, the plot involves a protagonist (literally named Christian Pilgrim) who resolves to journey from his hometown (the City of Destruction) to a paradise (the Celestial City) where a benevolent and eternal King awaits him. As Christian travels along the path which that King has assigned to him, he faces the dangers and hardships posed in various locations, including the Swamp of Despondency, Vanity Fair, the Valley of Humiliation, and Doubting Castle.
One of the movie’s strengths is its solid cast of voice actors, all of whom fit their roles well and lend some extra personality to the characters. The two standouts are Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies and Irish singer/hymn-writer Kristyn Getty, who respectively voice the heroic supporting characters known as Evangelist and the Interpreter. (Frankly, Rhys-Davies and Getty have voices that might stir us even by reading aloud a phone book.)
I should add that the movie benefits from the power and imagination of Bunyan’s story transcending the limitations of the filmmakers and their budget. We find ourselves thinking about how the Christian life, despite often being outwardly mundane, qualifies as an ongoing spiritual battle that calls for exceptional perseverance and devotion unto our King’s glory. Every Christian is caught up in a daring and demanding adventure, whether they realize it or not.
The result boasts many merits but is far from an artistic masterpiece. As the flaws go, one is that the adapted screenplay falls short of the coherent structuring that befits a cinematic experience. That is not to say that the movie lacks a linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. But Fernandez, for better or for worse, retains the mostly episodic nature of the source material. This flaw is especially apparent when Christian decides late in the film that he should stray from the set path and onto a “more convenient” route, despite having clearly learned and understood before that such will lead to dire consequences. But isn’t that strangely similar to our Christian journey, where we are always susceptible to forget the lessons we have learned and repeat our mistakes?
In addition, I must draw attention to the computer animation, which looks more like early 2000s video game footage instead of the quality of 3D animation we have become accustomed to. To be fair, the filmmakers make the most of their budget, which Cleary has estimated to be about $2 million. (As a point of reference, that’s slightly more than 1% of the standard budget for a Pixar animated feature.)
Whether in big ways (such as the production designers delivering set pieces which live up to the epic scale of Christian’s journey) or small ways (such as the technical artists pulling off golden tresses for the Interpreter), we witness Fernandez and his team exercising valiant resourcefulness. Still, I imagine that they would have been wiser to settle for hand-drawn animation, which the director has more experience with anyways.
It doesn’t help that the movie arrives amid a golden age of animated features, complete with gems from heavyweight studios like Disney and Pixar, as well as much smaller studios like Laika and Cartoon Saloon. (If you’re seeking an animated flick that has a biblical worldview, I encourage you to dig into the past by viewing Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, The Miracle Maker, or The Prince of Egypt.)
Nonetheless, this film adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress has the potential to edify and encourage Christian viewers in their own journeys as they follow Jesus. I think the movie is engaging enough to work perhaps even for especially young viewers, and it’s a convenient way to inspire thought-provoking and Christ-honoring discussion among families. And, if the movie inspires at least a few people to read the book, Fernandez might have all the more reason to feel satisfied.
Although a PG rating would be appropriate (due to action violence and perilous moments), Christian parents can feel quite safe about their teen and pre-teen kids seeing it. While small children may also enjoy the film, I do caution parents that the movie has a few scenes that are rather frightening, due to them involving the antagonist Apollyon or demonic creatures who serve him.
My recommendation is that Christian families should see the movie in theaters if they feel strongly about supporting the filmmakers’ mission (which includes making the movie available free to Christians around the world) or are looking for a safe and theologically solid film for a family night out. Otherwise I might recommend waiting until the film is available on disc (release not certain) or the streaming services, such as Pure Flix.
Note: The Pilgrim’s Progress will play in theaters exclusively on April 18 and 20.