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NOAH'S ARK.

(BIBLICAL MINISERIES; NBC, SUN. MAY 2 AND MON. MAY 3, 9 P.M.)

Filmed in Australia by Hallmark Entertainment for Babelsberg Intl. Film Producktion. Executive producer, Robert Halmi Sr.; producer, Stephen Jones; director, John Irvin; writer, Peter Barnes; camera, Mike Molloy; production designer, Leslie Binns; editor, Ian Crafford; music, Paul Grabowsky; costume designer, Marion Boyce; visual effects supervisor, Ernie Farino; sound, Steve Burgess; casting, Lynn Kressel, Maura Fay & Assn., Joyce Nettles. 4 HOURS.
Noah                  Jon Voight
Naamah          Mary Steenburgen
Lot            F. Murray Abraham
Sarah                 Carol Kane
The Peddler         James Coburn
Shem                Mark Bazeley
Japheth             Jonathan Cake
Ham                Alexis Denisof
Esther             Emily Mortimer
Ruth               Sydney Poitier
Miriam               Sonya Walger


Old Testament late, anyone? Forget about Cecil B. DeMille and the biblical epics of our youth, those pious and solemn journeys into joylessness like "The Ten Commandments" that tended to peer at religious history through the filter of heavy-handedness. This "Noah's Ark" is the anti-DeMille, more of a "Noah's Lark" that skirts the line of blasphemy to paint a defiantly informal -- even self-mocking -- portrait of one of the Bible's most hallowed tales. It's not what most people are going to expect, and NBC may wind up havin' some `splainin' to do to theologians and purists. This may not bring in the flood of Nielsen numbers the Peacock would like in order to immediately swamp its rivals in the May sweeps.

Here is that exceedingly rare Bible story that refuses to overstate its case or overindulge the audience. Scribe Peter Barens clearly doesn't see it as his mission to unnecessarily inflate his project's sense of importance. Barnes goes out of his way, in fact, to make perfectly certain that no one mistakes his verbiage as being in any way related to the Word of God.

"Noah's Ark" stakes out the low-key road from the get-go with this opening disclaimer prior to both installments: "For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the Flood ..."

In this typically handsome and dazzling, effects-laden production from the spare-no-expense stable of Robert Halmi Sr. at Hallmark Entertainment, the biblical players are in essence transferred to the present-day San Fernando Valley. Lot, for instance, tells wife Sarah, "The trouble with you is someone once told you to be yourself!"

Noah, while climbing Mount Topek for his appointed discussion with God: "Oy, I ate too much!"

When God speaks to Noah, it is in Noah's own voice. Rather than standing tall as an authoritative Lord God Almighty, this God sounds more like an agent taking a meeting at Jerry's Deli.

When God tells Noah to build a 500-foot-long, 83-foot-wide, 50-foot-high ark, he explains, "I think big! I made the world in six days!" When Noah asks, "Why me, Lord?," God replies, "You fit the bill. Good times, bad times, you believe in me."

There are indeed times when "Noah's Ark" approaches parody. It's boosted by an unquenchable sense of humor and a buoyant, almost bubbly tone. The oft-told story of world flooding, 40 days and 40 nights of rain and replenishing the earth by saving two of every animal on the massive ark emerges with far greater clarity thanks to Barnes' pointedly eccentric teleplay and helmer John Irvin's spirited, balanced direction.

Yet there is something holding this film back. And the culprit is named Jon Voight. He is a passionless, utterly stiff and mealy-mouthed Noah. While Noah is depicted in biblical literature as being a common schmo, he is a tad too common here to muster much enthusiasm or admiration.

Voight's Noah is really more a guy who just can't say no -- at least not to God. Build an ark to navigate a future flood when it's 105 degrees outside? Sure, anything you say, God. It's easy for everyone to poke fun at him during the months of ark construction because Noah is so lousy at explaining himself, and he's such a Milquetoast.

The supporting cast does its best to prop up Voight, with Mary Steenburgen (as his wife Naamah) and F. Murray Abraham (as a highly animated Lot) faring best and Carol Kane (as Lot's wife Sarah) and James Coburn (the Peddler) enjoying decidedly less success. The quick death of Kane's screechy character (she is transformed into a pillar of salt during God's fireball destruction of Sodom) is truly merciful.

To Halmi's credit, "Noah's Ark's' tech effects blend with seamless ease, while the primary flood scene with the ark is legitimately spectacular. Location setting in Australia is lush and evocative. And designer Marion Boyce's costume work is first rate.

Nevertheless, this is a project that holds substance in equal esteem as style. The second night ditches some of the irreverence while working to make sense of God's wiping out of humanity -- and His ultimate regret over the act. But in this wiggy "Noah's Ark," God simply cannot resist the urge to sound like a carnival barker -- or super agent -- one final time at the end, telling Noah and Naamah to embrace the sunrise and sunset, explaining. "It's a good show, and it's free. Enjoy."

Indeed, the miniseries largely succeeds by charming us into believing this: The best thing about being God is that no matter how busy the joint is, He doesn't need to pull any strings to get a corner table.

Tech credits are sharp, although the music occasionally intrudes.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:RICHMOND, RAY
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Apr 26, 1999
Words:894
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