Prequel-mania spreads from Disney fairy tales to Biblical epics with "The Young Messiah," an adaptation of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," about the life of Jesus as a 7-year-old boy. Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh treats the origin story respectfully but flatly -- as though he's filming the adventures of Superman in Smallville.
Devout Christian audiences might find the film's scriptural resonances inspiring (or perhaps scandalously blasphemous, because they're based on apocrypha). Ordinary moviegoers may wonder why the picture's so dryly earnest.
After an early scene in which Jesus surreptitiously resurrects an Egyptian child he's been falsely accused of killing, "The Young Messiah" mostly follows the future Christ (played by Adam Greaves-Neal) as he travels with his earthly parents Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh) to Galilee. Along the way, Jesus discovers his powers of prophecy and miracle-working, in public displays that put him at risk of being discovered by the Roman centurion (Sean Bean) hired to track him down.
"The Young Messiah" works best when it's functioning as a historical drama, detailing how Jesus' childhood corresponded with Israel's Jews being persecuted by Romans and exploited by their own leaders. Against that backdrop, the rumors of a savior have real meaning -- as does Joseph's fatherly worry over when to tell the boy who he really is.
Less successful are the more conventional biblical-epic movie elements: the British accents, the shadowy demonic figures, the tasteful touches of sex and violence, et cetera. They all make "The Young Messiah" feel bland and hidebound, with none of the "you are there" vitality of some of the best films about the life of Christ.
Nowrasteh makes everything too portentous, as the boy Jesus has his first encounters with baptism, crucifixion, temple merchants and the like. At times, this movie feels too much like the Christian version of "The Phantom Menace," offering unnecessary explanations for well-known stories.
In the end, as with too many Gospel-derived dramas, "The Young Messiah" could've used less literalism, and more mystery.
'The Young Messiah'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes