THE STAR, US, 2017. Voices of: Stephen Yuen, Keegan-Michael Key, Aidy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan. Directed by Timothy Reckart. 86 minutes. Rated G.
Teachers and parents have been asking about this film. They want to know whether it would be helpful in classes about the religious meaning of Christmas, whether it will be helpful for families to see the film in preparation for Christmas.
This is an animation film, sponsored by Sony, with a great deal of the animation work done in Canada. The animation decision indicates that this will not be a “realistic “presentation of the familiar stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
(One might add that some bloggers have taken a very serious stance, objecting that this means of communication is not fit for gospel stories, is irreverent, could demean the stories. They forget that there has been a long tradition of cribs, different imagination of humans and animals in cribs, and Christmas legends like The Small One with Bing Crosby’s 1947 recording available on Youtube.)
It is important to note that this is a film designed for the youngest of audiences. It is definitely geared to “littlies” and the parents who accompany them and who are eager for their children to learn, as befits their age, something about Christmas – rather than the tinsel and commercialism, the over-emphasis on Santa Claus and children knowing more about him, the North pole, his reindeers than about Jesus.)
The filmmakers agree that they have taken liberties with imagining and embellishing the story, wanting to add some tones of humour to delight the children’s audience, some slapstick and pratfalls to have them laughing (which the littlies do), and a touch of drama with Mary and Joseph hurrying to Bethlehem, a sinister King Herod manipulating the wise men and a brutal soldier and two fierce dogs in pursuit of Mary and Joseph.
So, while Mary and Joseph and Herod are significant characters, the point about this telling of the story is that it is from the point of view of the animals and their being the central characters as well. Actually, the humans can’t hear them talk, only the familiar animal sounds. But, the audience hears them and they have a range of voices from a number of American actors and comedians including Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan, Mariah Carey as the camels and Christopher Plummer as Herod.
The central character is a donkey called Bo. He and an old donkey (voiced by Kris Kristofferson) are mill donkeys, going in circles all their lives, Bo eager to escape but not really knowing how. He is well voiced by Korean-American actor, Steven Yuen. Bo has a cheeky dove friend, prone to wisecracks (Keegan Michael Key). They want to be in the king’s entourage.
Bo and Dave want to help Mary, who has been kind to Bo, and they hurry along the road to Bethlehem where they meet a lost sheep, Ruth (Aidy Bryant). Lots of comedy here, verbal and physical.
While the pursuing soldier might be frightening, the littlies might find the two snarling dogs (one fierce, the other rather dumb) fiercer – though they do have a crib conversion!
The key elements of Mary and Joseph, annunciation, betrothal, visit from Elizabeth and Zachary, inns and stables are all there – though, for some tastes the expected very American accents of Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi sound too modern, Mary prone to say ‘OK’ a lot. While Herod is evil, we see all the elements of Matthew 2 – though not the killing of the Innocents, the fierce soldier in pursuit being enough.
The film opens ‘9 months BC’! The light of the annunciation vision goes up into the sky to shine for the Magi and all, people and animals alike.
It is not a film for older children, unless they are tolerant of films for those younger than they are, nor a film designed for adults. The older children will identify more with The Nativity Story of 2006.
But, this is a nice little film for little audiences, part of initial steps to learning the Gospel stories.
Sony. Released 30th November
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.