*** 1/2 [3.5 out of 4 stars]
[Shown, for some unknown reason, as 3 out of 4 stars on RottenTomatoes.com, but actually 3.5 stars in newspaper.]
"The Book of Mormon Movie - Volume 1: The Journey" snuck into theaters Friday with nary a lick of support from its filmmaker or distributors.
Too bad. With a little more publicity, word of this sturdy little adaptation of LDS scripture might have reached a bigger audience.
The movie tells the story of prophets Lehi (Bryce Chamberlain) and Nephi (Noah Danby), Lehi's son, who flee Jerusalem and travel to the Americas around 600 B.C. at God's behest. Also along for the ride are Laman (Mark Gollaher) and Lemuel (Cragun Foulger), Nephi's treacherous, faithless brothers who constantly plot his death. Once in the New World, Nephi and his brothers separate into rival tribes.
The movie carries a grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille-type feel, and serves as a vibrant visualization of The Book of Mormon for believers and curious outsiders alike.
It's difficult to determine why there is such a lack of confidence behind the movie. Not only were there no press screenings or review tapes sent out, and the mainstream media wasn't even told of the movie's existence. The grass roots efforts to get church members to attend the movie were more threatening than encouraging. The film's web site posts this warning: "Your local theater will cancel the movie after the first week if support is not there."
The movie even begins with a long disclaimer stating that the film was not made or endorsed by the Mormon church, that some creative liberties were taken with the Book of Mormon, and some events were skipped.
Well, duh. As if there has ever been a movie that didn't change or omit some of its source material.
All the nervous non-promotion seems to signify a dud, but director Gary Rogers did wonders with his miniscule $2 million budget. Sprawling sets and imaginative, if a little crusty, special effects give the material its needed resonance. Rogers is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and it would be tantalizing to see what he could do with a bigger budget and better actors. Of the cast, only Foulger carries a dominant screen presence. The rest seem like dinner theater refugees, albeit refugees who are trying their hardest. Maybe too hard.
After the ridiculous disclaimer, the story begins with the brief story of Joseph Smith (Dustin Harding), the church's founder, who, according to Mormon beliefs, translated golden plates -- containing a testament from Christ -- shown to him the angel Moroni (Bruce Newbold). As Smith begins his work, we flash back to 600 B.C. Lehi, who talks to God, is a social outcast because of his prophecies.
In epic fashion, the movie explores the consequences of the different ways Lehi's sons react to God's word. Laman and Lemuel are punished time and again for their ignorance, while Nephi is continually rewarded for his believing heart.
Unfortunately for this film, its marketing campaign didn't stick to Nephi's example.
* [1 out of 5 stars]
"Mormon movies" are a burgeoning industry in Utah, and despite the niche audience and low budgets, some of them hold their own with Hollywood in terms of storytelling and entertainment value.
The Book of Mormon Movie, however, isn't one of them.
Subtitled Volume 1: The Journey, this two-hour installment covers the first 50 pages or so of The Book of Mormon, which, along with the Bible, is the core text of the LDS faith. Church members will find the film to be a faithful adaptation of the story of Nephi and his father, Lehi, Hebrew prophets who lead a journey to a new Promised Land - the Americas - in the sixth century B.C.
It's an echo of the Exodus story, with the movie striving to be the LDS Ten Commandments. But this is strictly amateur hour, mired in wooden acting, hackneyed cinematography and robotic dialogue that makes George Lucas sound like Aaron Sorkin.
"I love you more than any man could love any woman," drones Nephi (Noah Danby) to his bride. Her reply: "I give you all my heart and soul." Blech.
One might forgive the low-budget special effects, but costumes are on par with a high school play, and no attention is paid to cultural accuracy or basic standards of realism - as when Nephi's belligerent older brother Laman (Mark Gollaher), after weeks in the desert, returns to Jerusalem looking Downy-fresh in his bright white tunic.
A deeper problem arises in the attempt to adapt inherently didactic scripture to a narrative arc. The central conflict of this story is between faith in God (embodied by Nephi) and selfish unbelief (Laman). But dramatic tension depends upon internal as well as external conflict - and Nephi's momentary crisis of faith comes 40 minutes in. For the next two-thirds of the film, he is unwavering, a paragon of virtue who defeats his evil brothers at every turn, thanks to the occasional miracle.
It may be an inspiring example for believers, but as cinema, it's a sin.