Rated. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.
As soon as I saw the trailer I was afraid that this animated movie based on the Nativity would be a bit too cutesy for my taste, so I put off for several weeks going to see the film. Was it ever! And yet, still, I found myself enjoying parts of it, especially when thinking back to whom the film was targeting—not adults thoroughly familiar with the gospel sources, but children, some of whom will know of the Nativity, not through parents or Sunday school, but through references in the culture, mostly conveyed through TV and movies.
First, let me share the negative aspects of the film, and then go on to describe why I think it is nonetheless worth family viewing:
The filmmakers obviously thought the birth stories in the two gospels need jazzing up for young viewers, hence the addition of the donkey Bo, bored with the drudgery of trudging around in a circle to move a millstone that grinds the grain of his cruel master. Bo is friends with a dove named Dave, who shares his dream of becoming important by joining the traveling royal caravan that passes by the mill one day. When Bo manages to escape and then becomes bound up with the Nazareth couple Joseph and Mary, Dave stays with him to help him get away. We have already seen, at the beginning of the film, Mary visited by the angel telling her she will bear the Messiah despite not being married. The angel, encased in brilliant white, flies out the window and up into the sky. A bright star appears.
Meanwhile east of Jerusalem three wise men appear riding their camels. We do not hear any of the human’s conversation, just that of the three camels, much of it consisting of wisecracks. In Jerusalem King Herod is a bit surprised that the gifts they bear are not for him but for a soon-to-be-born king. When his advisers inform him that the child will be born in Bethlehem, he urges his departing guests to come back to let him know there the child is. He then orders one of his burly soldiers to take two attack dogs and track down the family and kill the child. The Romans have ordered a census, so he knows they will be traveling to Bethlehem.
Just how the killer knows his quarry will be setting out from Nazareth is not explained, but as Mary and Joseph are leaving Nazareth, the soldier and dogs have arrived in search of them. Throughout the journey the pursuers will draw ever close to them, with Bo at time trying to warn the pair, but Mary and Joseph discern only the braying of a donkey. Along the way a sheep named Ruth will join Bo and Dave, the sheep having left the flock in order to follow the flock. How all these, and more, characters converge in Bethlehem, with the animals saving the Holy Family from their would-be killers will be suspenseful to young viewers not as familiar as adults with the gospels.
The story of the animals follows the usual cartoon plot of the weak struggling against the strong, with lots of physical action and funny dialogue. Far more screen time is given to them than to Mary and Joseph. It is possible that the biblical will be lost at worst, or overshadowed at best, by the more exciting story.
The filmmakers, by conflating the stories in Matthew and Luke have taken Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents and reduced it to one soldier and two killer dogs and placed it before the birth, thus creating suspense for young viewers. This fuses together the two distinct seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. The accepted church calendar keeps these two seasons distinct, though the children’s bathrobe Christmas pageant, presumably begun by Protestants in the 19th century gives the impression (wrong) that the magi arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth, rather than later—maybe as much as a year or two later according to Matthew.
Despite all of the above, The Star is the only game in town, for those seeking a family film that deals with the actual Christmas story. The danger of its becoming overshadowed by the frenetic animal story can be averted by the parent or grandparent accompanying the child discussing the film—Linus does this well in the delightful A Charlie brown Christmas by reading the gang Luke’s birth story. And there is one excellent point that the animal story makes at the conclusion of the life and death struggle between them and the soldier and his attack dogs. The soldier plunges to the ground far below, but Bo and his friends manage to pull the dogs to safety, instead of letting them also fall (presumably to death). This act of grace transforms the dogs so that they too can join in the worship of the new-born King. A nice gospel touch of why the Christ Child was born.
The film is well served by its colorful animation, and the Sony-backed Affirm Films had the budget to afford a large voice cast that includes such A-list actors as Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan and Tyler Perry, as well as Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhames, Kelly Clarkson, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenowith, and Mariah Carey. And these all voice just the supporting characters, with B-list actors speaking for the main ones. This film never rises to the level of the gorgeous claymation story of Jesus’ life, The Miracle Maker, but is worth paying the matinée price of admission.