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Family Movie Review: Ben-Hur (PG-13)

Kernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalhalf-popcorn-kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 124 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This faith-based remake of the 1959 film has a few different bloody war scenes; an assassination attempt; some people are thrown off horses; some gory wounds, including one that is cauterized; some gross scenes of people who are sick with leprosy; a violent, bloody chariot race; characters who are forced into slavery are whipped and there is a violent shipwreck; many crucifixions; some kissing between married characters; and the killing of Jesus Christ.

The remake of ‘Ben-Hur’ is more simplistically faith-based than its classic 1959 predecessor, but the tweaks to the storyline make the film feel more insular. The highlight here is the updated chariot chase, but those 3D thrills don’t make up for the rest of the film’s unnecessariness.

By Roxana Hadadi

Ben Hur ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewAny remake has to battle expectations and comparisons with the original content, and this latest version of “Ben-Hur” is no different. If you’ve seen the 1959 film with Charlton Heston, certain things stand out so starkly—the groundbreaking chariot chase; the fact that we never see Jesus’s face—that it’s nearly impossible not to think of them when viewing this 2016 version, which doesn’t deliver the same kind of unforgettable content as its predecessor.

This latest “Ben-Hur” is actually the fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace,” and is more blatantly faith-based than the Oscar-winning Heston version. The film moves around character motivations and relationships in a way that focuses primarily on individual choice.

That’s a way to get viewers involved at first, but those moves seem to cheapen the story as it goes forward. What ends up happening is that “Ben-Hur” feels less like a whole story about a man who is wronged by the corruption and power of the Roman Empire and vows revenge, eventually experiencing the phenomena of Jesus Christ along the way, and more like a story about two brothers who have a fight for their own personal reasons, with a biography of Jesus shoehorned in. The sense of epic scope just isn’t here.

The film focuses on Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, of “Hail, Caesar!”), a Jewish noble who is struggling to keep the peace in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Raised alongside him is his adopted brother, the Roman orphan Messala (Toby Kebbell, of “WarCraft”), who decides to join the Roman army as a way to escape the reputation of treason that hangs over his name (his grandfather helped murder Julius Caesar).

Years later, when Messala returns to Jerusalem, Judah thinks they will reunite in brotherly love, but instead Messala has been sent by Rome to quell the uprising by “zealots,” Jews who want their freedom from the empire. An assassination attempt on a Roman ruler cements the divide between the two brothers, and Messala sends Judah into slavery, rowing for years on a Roman warship.

But Judah ends up under the protection of Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, of “Now You See Me 2”), a horse racer and gambler who tells him “You owe me your life. I expect that bill to be paid.” So the two concoct a scheme where Judah will race Messala in the Roman arena—“in the circus, there is no law”—and earn his revenge.

Is this the same Judah, though? Hatred has become his primary motivator, which threatens to ruin his relationship with his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, of “Desert Dancer”), who in the years of Judah’s absence has become one of Jesus’s followers. If “God punishes just as God forgives,” what does that mean for the once-brothers?

“Ben-Hur” is trying to tell three stories, and is clunky in its execution of each. The film’s narration strongly advocates for “forgiveness and understanding” as a way to unite families “to fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith,” but that’s such a literal understanding of the film’s message that it’s almost too simplistic.

What’s weirdest, though, is the film forgets its Romans vs. zealots storyline about halfway through, and tries to replace the concept of Jews rising up for freedom with Jews turning to Jesus for a future in paradise. It’s strange to see character motivations moved around like that, and making Jesus the answer to all of the problems of the Roman Empire is the most blatantly faith-based, but also problematic, choice. In the attempt to make this a family-friendly film, “Ben-Hur” loses much of the nuance that makes this story noteworthy in the first place.

Couple that awkward storytelling with anachronistic elements (women wearing pants; use of words like “thugs” and “progressive”) and tons of shaky camerawork, and ultimately “Ben-Hur” just lacks impact. Sure, the chariot chase is really thrilling in 3D. But the film that is built around that chase scene is mostly forgettable, paling to the 1959 version in practically every way.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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