(I'm Steve, I'm trying the veal here on Brighton Pier all week…)
There seems to be an unwritten law that Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale Of The Christ must be adapted into every medium possible. Silent movie, talking movie, stage play, TV series… next there'll be a lego Top Trumps board-game for the PS3 of it, you mark my words.
This 2003 direct-to-DVD (remember those?) animated telling is, at time of writing, the best of the lot, but I probably only think that because it's what I always say after finishing each new one.
In fact as well of the interest of seeing (well, hearing) Heston return to such a famous role, this version has tons going for it.
The plot absolutely bullets along. If you're put off by the idea of enduring the main character's long years in slavery again, here it's all over in a drumbeat. The result is a tale that held me throughout, and didn't drag at all. Even his childhood friendship with Messala is recapped at the outset as having already happened in the past, rather than asking us to invest too much time in exposition.
Secondly, this telling is relatively nice. I always find that the joy in all these different versions lies in their differences, and while shocking inhumanity still befalls our heroes (eg. the prison) it tends to be implied. Over the years, the doomed Messala has become something of an old friend to this viewer, so to see him finish this one recovering from his injuries and becoming friends with Ben Hur again is a real aww moment.
Best of all though, is this production's pride in its Christian message. Not for these guys the 2009 stage play that avoided even mentioning Jesus' crucifixion - here Jesus is a talking face like all the other characters, and unashamedly present to lead mankind back to God by rising from death. The film even opens with Mary and Joseph enacting the traditional (as opposed to Biblical) Christmas story, complete with miracles, angels and shepherds, making this DVD as much an Xmas special as an Easter one. Even the ascension is in here!
The many tales of Ben Hur are doubtless not over yet, but it's good to see that the standard is still up there amongst those opening stars.