Acclaimed Director of Animated The Grinch Revisits Story of Three Wise Men
He reached the pinnacle of animation as director of 2018’s The Grinch. This season, Yarrow Cheney and his wife Carrie present their passion project The Three Wise Men.
For 20 years, husband-wife filmmakers Yarrow and Carrie Cheney have been telling stories on-screen. This holiday season, their computer animated half-hour special The Three Wise Men premieres via streaming service Amazon Prime.
“This Christmas project, we hope will bring smiles, joy, and hope,” said Carrie Cheney, screenwriter of the short film. “Everybody’s at home. They’re clicking on their TVs to watch stuff. We believe this film will shine faith and light into the world of streaming.”
Her husband Yarrow Cheney spent a decade working at Illumination, one of the world’s top animation studios. Shortly after a years-long stint co-directing 2018’s The Grinch, he parted ways with the studio.
Now the couple are telling stories together again. Their first project has been to revitalize a film first released in 2006. Just out of art school, they spent seven years on their animated adaptation of the Gospels’ wise men narrative.
“We believe this film will shine faith and light into the world of streaming.” — Carrie Cheney
“Fourteen years ago, it couldn’t have streamed online,” said Yarrow. “There was no such thing then. All of a sudden, this film is going global at a time when the world needs hope.”
Released for the first time in high definition, The Three Wise Men features narration from the late Andy Griffith (1926-2012).
Along with picture and sound improvements, it includes all-new song “Just A Breath Away (Noel)” by Grammy Award-winning music artist Jonas Myrin.
Myrin’s worship songs “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” and “Our God” are familiar to churchgoers worldwide.
“This song really resonates with people,” said Carrie. “Friends keep writing me saying, ‘I don’t know why I just started crying.’ Like the wise men, they may be out-of-towners or come from any background.
“People who are hungry and seeking truth, they will find it.”
Realizing Their Dream
The couple met at famed animation school CalArts, co-founded in 1961 by Walt Disney. Decades of award-winning Disney and Pixar artists have been trained there.
They dreamed of a particular project. “One of our first conversations was about Christmas TV specials,” recalls Yarrow. “We grew up on Frosty the Snowman and all those wonderful Rankin-Bass shows. We said: Someday, let’s actually make our own.”
It took shape over years. “For a long time, it was us doing a lot of the work by ourselves without a crew around us,” he noted. While Carrie worked out the script, Yarrow drew storyboards.
Reel FX, a Dallas-based animation studio, decided to acquire and produce the film. “Then you have so many artists working on our vision,” said Yarrow. “They add their artistry and gifts to what you’re trying to do.”
Another classic special, 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, inspired screenwriter Carrie to make it a poem.
“We were so blessed by the Grinch, which is such a hope-filled story,” she said. “Because of that, we agreed our wise men special should rhyme. We put the story text from Matthew and Luke up on a wall, along with Yarrow’s storyboards. I’d look at Christmas hymns and carols, to weave certain phrases into the poem.”
Years later, Yarrow would help lead a team of hundreds to retell the Grinch’s redemptive story.
How The Grinch’s Heart Grew
“As an artist, our film about the three wise men really formed me in many ways,” said Yarrow.
His resume includes such animated hits as The Iron Giant and Despicable Me. He moved into directing with The Secret Life of Pets and, starting in 2014, The Grinch.
Illumination spent four years producing their full-length animated version. “All the animators and team are looking at Christmas lights year-round, even in July,” he said. “I was very comfortable with that because of our wise men special that also took years.”
Carrie points out how his designs make lighting a character in itself. “Because of what the story represents, that sense of light and hope was important in The Three Wise Men,” she said.
“As I watched him design so much of The Grinch film, I thought: Here it comes again. Here comes that light and hope in a secular story. But it was underneath.”
Reviews of The Grinch noted its explicitly Christian focus in several scenes. Sacred carols “Silent Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are heard at length. (The film is currently available on Netflix.)
A committed Christian along with his wife, Yarrow gets energized talking about the animated movie.
“In the Grinch, you have this sort of faithless person who has isolated himself from the world,” said Yarrow. “He’s been hurt and broken to the point that he finds joy ridiculous. It’s pushed him away from Whoville and the Whos. Then, through love, he has his heart changed.
“Even though it’s not about the birth of Christ, it’s a wonderful Christmas story.”
Angels and Andy Griffith
One highlight of their film The Three Wise Men was working with screen legend Andy Griffith.
“It goes back to how we were trying to create our own version of those old Christmas specials,” said Carrie. “In the 60’s and 70’s, those specials had narrators like Fred Astaire and Jimmy Durante. Who’s our Fred Astaire now?”
The obvious answer hit them: America’s beloved star of The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock.
With hope and prayer, they sent the script on to Griffith’s agent. “We were just a married couple without any studio backing, making a small independent film,” recalls Yarrow. “He later told us he read the script and discussed it with his wife. He said, ‘Cindi, I’ve got to do this.’”
Everything you expected will be fulfilled. In fact, it’s going to be shockingly better than you thought.
They traveled to his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina to record Griffith. Today, eight years following his death in 2012, the short film starring Griffith re-releases via streaming.
As for the Cheneys, they recently inked a contract with Random House to produce an illustrated novel for middle-grade readers. It’s set to release in 2022.
“We haven’t been able to work together in the creative arts for a while,” said Carrie. “It’s been a joy getting back into collaborating on a project — this one about superheroes.”
The couple believe The Three Wise Men speaks directly to the difficulties of a long year. “These people were kind of overlooked by the world,” said Yarrow about Mary and Joseph. “They were poor. They lived up in Nazareth. And angels from the Lord came with a message of hope.
“These angels essentially said: Everything you expected will be fulfilled. In fact, it’s going to be shockingly better than you thought.”