SPOILER ALERT: This may just be the most unnecessary spoiler alert of any of my reviews to this point, simply because everyone already knows the story. However, I will discuss characters and some plot elements. I don't think reading this review prior to seeing the film will detract from the experience. However, if you'd like to go in with a blank slate, consider this your minor warning.
As the credits for The Star begin to roll, the movie's creators added in a message saying that they obviously took creative license with the Nativity story but they attempted to stay as close as possible to "the greatest story ever told." I think this is an important distinction at the outset, because we need to have an understanding of what we are asking from a film like this.
Are we asking for complete and utter adherence to the story as told in The Bible which he have heard countless times, or are we asking for a creatively constructed narrative that doesn't change the key elements but brings them to life in a new way? Personally, I would choose the latter, and I thought The Star walked this line brilliantly.
Basically, this film details the story of the animals in the stable at Jesus' birth in the days, weeks and months leading up to that momentous occasion. The main character is a mill donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun) who has no name at the beginning of the story. He wants to break out of his monotonous life with the ultimate dream of joining the royal caravan. He has a friend, a dove named Dave (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who pushes him to break out of the mill. Finally, he does so with some help from his elderly mill donkey companion (voiced by Kris Kristofferson). As you can probably guess, he finds his way to the house of Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (voiced by Zachary Levi) who are soon to be married. The movie's opening scene lets us in on Mary's secret but, at this point, she hasn't told Joseph. Mary begins to care for the donkey who she names Boaz, Bo for short. Inevitably, Joseph notices Mary's baby bump, and she tells him what the angel proclaimed to her in the opening scene. She will give birth to the Son of God. Mary and Joseph decide to set out on their journey to Bethlehem, but they leave Bo behind.
Throughout the story, Bo wants to be a part of something big. At this point, he cannot fathom that anything "big" would happen in Nazareth. This brings up a good point on how carefully the movie's creators constructed their narrative. All the characters, especially Bo, make choices based upon what they want. Bo eventually sets off on the journey to go after Mary and Joseph, but he does so for reasons that make sense. Mary had helped care for him, and Bo realizes that he has brought danger upon her and her baby (in the form of two angry dogs named Thaddeus and Rufus voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias). But more than anything, he thinks his "big thing" is out there somewhere. So he sets off on the road.
It would be easy in a film like this to simply have the characters make choices that fall in line with the story we all know - like some cosmic hand is guiding them like puppets into the actions described in The Bible. Instead, the characters in this film make choices that are true to their own nature for reasons that are clearly outlined in the development of their character. These choices do end up leading them into actions and situations outlined in Scripture, but it doesn't always happen in the way the character intends. THAT is good storytelling. It is especially important when dealing with a story as well-known as this one.
And of course we all know the Nativity story. Growing up in a Christian, Midwestern environment, I've even performed this story in childhood plays multiple times. I always find it fascinating when a director takes on a well-known story and tries to bring new life to it. That is exacerbated in this case because the story of Jesus' birth is held so dear by so many. An animated film dealing with this subject too lightly can easily fall into sacrilege. I never felt that from this film. It handled moments of importance with sincerity and reverence and saved the laughs for other points along the way.
And it does bring laughs! There were multiple points where I laughed out loud in the theater. I went with my father-in-law, my brother-in-law and my nephew, and we all enjoyed it. This film is definitely both kid and adult-friendly.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the film was the music. Sure, you have one big Mariah Carey song at the end (more on the impressive casting later). But what really intrigued me was the film's use of classic Christmas hymns. At different points along the way, you'll hear many familiar songs. However, the film places them strategically at the specific points of the story to which their lyrics refer. It brings these songs to life, because we are seeing the importance of the words within the entire story. As someone who has heard these songs in church his entire life, to see them enlivened in that way was actually pretty powerful.
Now, the film certainly does take its creative licenses. For instance, this film would have you believe that the Nativity story hinged on a bloodthirsty soldier being thwarted by elaborate Rube Goldberg machines initiated by a donkey, a dove and a sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant). The solider along with Rufus and Thaddeus are somewhat believable due to the account in The Bible of Herod's decision to slaugher young males throughout the land at that time. Not so much the Rube Goldbergs, though. However, we must again remind ourselves that this is a narrative meant to help kids and adults alike appreciate the Nativity story in a new way. It isn't meant to be a word-for-word translation of the story. We can get ourselves down an unnecessary rabbit hole if we begin picking apart various plot elements based upon their likelihood within the actual story.
The more I thought about it, even the animals may have more importance to the plot than a cursory viewing might suggest. The names of the three animals that allow Mary and Joseph to make it safely to Bethlehem are Bo (Boaz), Ruth and Dave (David). Any rudimentary Bible scholar will be able to tell you that those three names appear in the actual lineage of Jesus. Could the creators have been going for a bit of allegory here in showing that there were others who paved the way through divine providence for this momentous occasion in history? I'm not sure. I may be reaching there, but the names certainly stood out to me. If nothing else, the fact that they used those specific names shows just how careful the creators were in crafting their story.
Even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the film on the creative license it takes with its story, there are still some glaring flaws. For instance, Mary's reaction in the first scene when she is told that she will bear the Messiah rings very hollow for me. It's like she's hearing some everyday proclamation - not a life-changing, earth-shattering angelic proclamation. Joseph's reaction when he finds out, while somewhat more realistic, also felt like it wasn't quite right. Maybe doubt and anxiety are difficult subjects to adequately tackle in a film aimed at children. At least Joseph is given a scene where he quietly considers what he will do next before lovingly going back to console his wife. Still, I wish the film would have showcased just a little more nuance there.
We've been pretty spoiled when it comes to animation over the years, so when things don't line up correctly, it shows. Some of the mouth movements of the characters didn't seem quite in sync with the voice acting. But, overall, I found the animation and cinematography to be quite good. There are some beautiful shots of the titular star and the countryside over which the characters travel.
The film's ending is extremely well done, as all the characters are brought together for the climax surrounding the birth of the Messiah. At a pivotal moment, Bo shows mercy to Thaddeus and Rufus, and the soldier is only injured because he chooses to rebuff attempts to help him. There are themes of inclusion and love here that I think are powerful for kids (and adults, for that matter) to consider. I was pleased with the care that the creators took here to show that even the "bad" characters can be redeemed. More than that, their "badness" came not from who they are but from the choices they made. That is a fantastic distinction for kids to learn.
Another powerful lesson comes in the character of Bo. At the beginning of the film and throughout much of the plot, he is interested in doing something big. But his concept of what a "big" thing really is changes as the film goes on. By the end, he realizes that he had done something big. He carried a King even though he never made it to the royal caravan. In my own life, I've seen the power of recognizing the importance of things that seem small on the surface. One of the enduring truths of the Christmas story is that the world can be changed from a stable.
I am a Christian, and I've tried to take care not to elevate this film simply because it tells a Christian story. As with any movie, I'm more interested in how it goes about telling its story. But, if I may digress for just a moment, I think one can easily go too far in the other direction and lambast this movie simply because it attempts to tell a Christian story. I'm a little disappointed in some of the critical reception I've read about this movie (with Peter Debruge's review in Variety being a notable exception), because it seems as if they wrote the movie off when they saw that it was an animated version of the Nativity story. It's hard for me to see how one can overlook the excellence with which this story is crafted, especially considering it was directed by Oscar-nominee Timothy Reckhart. I will gladly point out my own bias, but I think my review of God's Not Dead shows that I'm willing to point out the negatives in a Christian film if I feel it is worthy of harsh criticism. I certainly would never say that my opinion of a film is the only right opinion or that others are not entitled to their own feelings. What I'm trying to say is that this movie should not be rated good or bad simply based on the fact that it deals with a story from The Bible. It should be rated good or bad based upon how well it crafts and tells that story.
Finally, a note about the cast. It's a who's who of big names. Many of the voices will be easily recognized, but others are harder to spot. One ironic casting choice was Gina Rodriguez - of Jane the Virgin fame - as the voice of Mary. She does a great job, as does the entire voice cast. Just an interesting connection. Also, I think Tracy Morgan could say anything and get me to laugh, and his character certainly offers up a few of the laughs in this film. All in all, the voice talent in this film is extremely impressive.
I will end by referring back to what I said at the beginning - this film succeeds in doing what it set out to do. The story of Jesus' birth is called "the greatest story ever told" for a reason. If we simply wanted a word-for-word retread, we have the best version possible available for us in The Bible. What this film seeks to do is to call new attention to the story by creating an interesting surrounding narrative. While it isn't perfect and it had some glaring errors, The Star succeeds on its writing and its care for storytelling. Overall, I found this film to be entertaining, not only for my nephew but also for me. It had powerful messages that will impact both young and old alike, and I thought it took great care to creatively bring this story to life while still staying true to the account of Scripture. It makes for a great family film, and I highly recommend it.
Note on content: Along the journey, there are some thrilling sequences, and one character falls off a cliff at the end, presumably to his death. Depending on a child's age or personality, it may be frightening. But each sequence is handled with care, and I certainly think this film is appropriate for most children. However, that is obviously a decision parents must solely make for their own children. I've done my best to outline how the film handles its material to help in that decision. I think young and old alike will enjoy the film.