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PILGRIM'S PROGRESS: New animated version does justice to Bunyan classic

Nearly 350 years ago, a jailed Puritan pastor named John Bunyan brought forth a little book called “Pilgrim’s Progress”; it has since been translated into more than 200 languages -- and reliably dubbed the second-best-selling book in English (after the Bible).

Bunyan’s allegorical fantasy is heavy on dialog and religious symbolism, which is probably why none of the film versions ever caught on.

Now writer-director Robert Fernandez seeks to remedy this with a brand-new computer-animated rendition; and despite his obviously modest budget, Fernandez does quite a solid job. Slated for limited release around Easter, this version is exciting, family friendly, often funny -- and reasonably faithful to Bunyan’s classic.

Of course, the operative word here is “reasonably.” Before purists start jumping up and down about Fernandez’s many changes, they ought to consider how tough it is to film Bunyan’s book as written. Allegories generally don’t make good cinema. (In fact, they often don’t even make good books, which puts Bunyan in a class by himself; but that’s another discussion.)

Fernandez retains the underlying narrative about one man’s spiritual quest through trials and temptations as he makes his way toward heaven -- or, as Bunyan has it, “the Celestial City.” We still have most of the author’s personified Christian traits and obstacles: Passion and Patience, the village of Morality, the valley of Humiliation, Obstinate and Pliable -- and of course Christian’s two stout companions, Faithful and Hopeful.

At the same time, Fernandez updates much of the language (“delectable” becomes “delightful,” “slough” becomes “swamp,” etc). He adds an effective prologue; and his cheerful coda points to the lesser-known second half of Bunyan’s book.

And as for those sprawling theological arguments: They are shortened, omitted or -- as with Apollyon -- replaced with more cinematic action scenes.

Fernandez also sprinkles mild comedy into Bunyan’s grim proceedings -- yet without violating the spirit of the text. The business with the giant’s wife is terrific, and Fernandez’s satirical take on the kangaroo court in Vanity Fair seamlessly mixes comedy and condemnation. The vocal work in all this is generally strong, highlighted by a deliciously snooty Mr. Worldly-Wise.

Best of all, Fernandez tweaks the ending with nifty new stuff about the mountain shepherd(s) and some barely-seen bloodshed in the river of death.

Bunyan fans might not be overjoyed with these changes, but the resulting film ably conveys his ideas to an overstimulated modern world; the movie is faithful and intelligent enough for adults, but fast and funny enough for kids. I say this with confidence, because the many children at the screening I attended were pretty much glued to the screen.

And the adults liked it too.

“Pilgrim’s Progress” had a very brief theatrical run in April and is now available on streaming and DVD.

“The Pilgrim’s Progress,”

written & directed by Robert Fernandez

Run time: 108 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG for mild thematic elements, action violence and scary images

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