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Remember when “WWJD” was all the rage? Short for “What Would Jesus Do?,” these four letters surged to the height of popularity, spawning bracelets, bumper stickers, T-shirts and more—a veritable flood of merchandise that threatened to wash away the spiritual sentiment that had originated the movement in a wave of moralistic triviality. Like any fad, the WWJD trend went out with the tide, but the idea of patterning one’s life after Jesus Christ as a believing follower is timeless.
WWJD is back in two films made by Nasser Group. The Woodcarver, the recently released sequel to What Would Jesus Do?, improves on its predecessor by avoiding the pitfalls the original fell into. Where WWJD rested too much on imitating Christ’s morality, rather than portraying true salvation and the purpose and means of Christ-like living, The Woodcarver does a better job of tying the WWJD principle to its biblical roots. With improvements in production quality, as well, The Woodcarver ups the original WWJD by offering an entertaining, family-friendly story with a strong Christian message about marriage, parenting, love, and living like Christ.
Matthew Stevenson’s world is crumbling. The teenager’s parents have separated and, judging from the epic yelling that ensues every time they’re together, a divorce is soon to follow. Desperate for help, Matthew even tried praying, but his parents continue to tear the family apart. Mad at God and his parents, Matthew lashes out by vandalizing the local church, smashing the exquisite wood carvings that had decorated the church building.
Actions, Matthew learns, have consequences. Caught on camera, the teen has to work to repair what he destroyed. But the incident is barely a blip on his parents’ radar, as Rita and Jack are too busy with their jobs and running from their marriage problems to address their son’s issues. After all, Jack has a pivotal career moment approaching with a contract to build an addition on the church. If he makes sure the pastor buys his employer’s prefabricated wood, Jack will be guaranteed a partnership.
The only thing standing in his way is the woodcarver who supplied the handcrafted wood for the original church building. Ernest Otto, the carpenter, also happens to be the man who made the exquisitely crafted woodwork that Matthew trashed. Jack isn’t nearly as concerned with that little detail as he is with the fact that the pastor wants Ernest to supply the wood for the addition. If Jack can talk Ernest into signing away his contract for the wood delivery, or if Ernest can’t make his deadline, Jack and his greedy boss will be able to use their prefabricated wood and make a hefty profit.
As Jack tries to convince and bribe Ernest to forego the handmade lumber, Matthew has an intriguing encounter with the no-nonsense woodcarver. With permission from the church pastor to help Ernest repair the damage Matthew did to the church, Matthew starts to work with Ernest. The teenager quickly becomes fascinated with woodworking and the wise Christian man who begins to teach him about Jesus, the Great Carpenter.
Despite their objections to Matthew’s new friendship, Rita and Jack are about to discover that Matthew isn’t the only one who needs help. With Ernest’s guidance, this dysfunctional family will learn the power of living a God-centered life.
For viewers who have seen The Last Brickmaker in America, the plot of The Woodcarver will seem extremely familiar. It’s similar enough to Brickmaker to qualify as a remake. However, The Woodcarver differs from the secular Brickmaker in the important respect of being overtly Christian in its message and content. One can see why the plot would be reused, as the story is a good one.
The screenplay offers plenty of tension as it pits son against father, wife against husband, and more in evolving twists. The plot is still a bit simplistic and predictable, but the complicated situation the characters are in keeps the story interesting. Unlike the first WWJD by Nasser Group, which reflected some growing pains, The Woodcarver presents this story with fluidity, not getting distracted with unnecessary scenes or stalled by disjointed organization.
In any faith-based film, the acting is of special concern, as it is a weakness in many Christian productions. For the most part, The Woodcarver delivers in this area, with solid performances from the lead adult actors. John Ratzenberger, as one might expect, is the standout in the film, bringing an obvious expertise and relaxed authenticity to his role as Ernest Otto. Nicole Oliver as Rita also gives a notable performance. The weak link in the mix is Matthew, played by Dakota Daulby, who is a bit stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera.
More importantly, the overall improvements in quality are accompanied by a better presentation of the WWJD concept. Though Ernest initially suggests that Matthew ask himself “What would Jesus do?” without discussing why Matthew should want to live as Jesus did (or how to do so), Ernest demonstrates, in both his actions and words, a legitimate faith in God that is deeper than imitating a set of good morals. More than just promoting WWJD living, Ernest demonstrates Christian faith, encouraging others to pray, using Scripture, and talking about the importance of putting God first in life.
The Woodcarver would do better to be more specific in illustrating the redemption and repentance that must take place before imitating Christ will have meaning or even be possible. This film, however, seems to be working on the assumption of a Christian audience and that some of the characters are Christians, albeit weak ones initially. If that’s the case, the story does no harm and a great deal of good in reminding believers to constantly strive to “be imitators of Christ, therefore, as dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
Check out these similar titles:
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (Christiano Film Group, 2008)
What If… (10 West Studios, 2010),
Pictures of Hollis Woods (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2007)