|Writer(s)||Carlos Kotkin (Screenplay) & Simon Moore (Story)|
|Release Date||November 17, 2017|
Coming courtesy of Sony Animation and the all-star triple-threat tag-team of Walden Media, Affirm Films and the Jim Henson Company, The Star is a kooky retelling of the Nativity story told from the perspective of the animals that were knocking about in the stable.
According to Wikipedia, Affirm Films are a faith-based branch of Sony that is “dedicated to producing, acquiring and marketing films that are mainly aimed at evangelical Christians.” I just thought you should know.
Oh, here we go.
Nope, no, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter whether or not I think all this is mumbo-jumbo. I do, of course. But I bring it up to make a point. The Star is explicitly a Christian film. And not just notionally. It aims to highlight and celebrate the virtues and values implicit in the Nativity story and Christianity generally. And to do so with no subtlety whatsoever. That might be grating for some people.
Was it grating for you?
Eh, a little bit. But The Star is mostly charming and inoffensive enough that I didn’t hate it, even if I found it’s moralising a bit egregious and its God-bothering line-towing a bit irksome. Doesn’t matter if it’s knuckles or hooves doing the knocking, thumping the good book is what it is. And it’s mostly annoying. Still, this is the Nativity story, at the end of the day. “The greatest story ever told,” some would have you believe. I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly a timeless enough tale to carry an animated comedic adventure for less than 90 minutes.
Okay. So, what’s the story?
I don’t imagine anyone in 2017 hasn’t heard tell of the birth of Jesus, but I have a certain word count to meet here and it’s always good to show your work. So here it is.
Mary (Gina Rodriguez) is a virgin, and is to be wed to a humble carpenter named Joseph (Zachary Levi). But then, one day – the film cutely introduces the scene with the words, “Nazareth, 9 Months B.C.” A glowing angelic presence arrives and tells her God has decided she’s going to father his child. Which Mary takes rather well, all things considered. She seems nice, but the script never really gives us a reason for God choosing her, or has her deal with this revelation beyond basically shrugging her shoulders and saying thanks. I guess I’m expecting too much.
But what’s Joseph going to say?
He’s less suspicious than I’d be, to put it mildly. But luckily these two aren’t the stars of The Star, which is refreshing. In this telling, they take a backseat to Bo (Steven Yeun), a donkey who has recently escaped a gruelling job which had him chained to a grindstone under the watchful eye of a maniacal miller. Mary and Joseph take a liking to the beast of burden and his chatty best friend, Dave, who’s a dove played by Keegan Michael Key. The animals talk to each other, but the humans don’t understand them. Their efforts translate as furious bleats and chirps, which is quite funny if you’re childish like me.
Also funny are Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey, who play the camels ferrying the three kings across the desert with their age-inappropriate gifts. They’re following the titular star all the way to Herod (Christopher Plummer), whom they – quite unwisely, for apparently wise men – inform of the impending arrival of a new king of the Jews. Herod goes mental, calls for a census to locate this rival ruler, and dispatches a brutish henchman in an iron mask and his two hench-dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to kill him. The Star is rated PG for “thematic elements”, which I assume means more the pre-wedlock baby bump than the thug and his pups.
That doesn’t seem enough animals.
Kelly Clarkson plays a horse, Patricia Heaton plays a cow, and Anthony Anderson plays a goat. Quota filled.
Is The Star any good?
It’s alright. The problem with religious stories told by religious people and aimed at religious audiences is that their importance is often assumed. Little attention is paid to things like character development, thematic cohesion, and narrative logic. Which is fine in religious doctrine; the tales are moralistic, designed to impart lessons and reinforce beliefs, not necessarily to function on their own terms. Not so for a movie. Luckily, the Nativity is quite a straightforward story by biblical standards. It has a structure and a payoff and ticking-clock device and a villain and a hero. You can make a movie out of that without much effort or skill.
And that’s The Star, really. A decent movie made without much effort or skill. Because of that, though, it doesn’t leave an impression.
So, what doesn’t work?
The Star tries to have its bible and read it, too. Its attempts to mix the spiritual with the silly never quite mesh properly. The jokes and hi-jinks undermine any attempt at dispensing a serious message, and its holy tidings of seasonal joy dilute the funny bits. As a consequence nothing quite works as well as it’s supposed to. There aren’t any particularly egregious missteps, but there’s a constant air of by-the-numbers do-gooderism that, fairly cynically, builds towards a Mariah Carey Christmas song. ‘Tis the season, I suppose.
Certainly don’t go out of your way, but if for some reason you feel like the Christmas critters have waited too long to be rewarded for their participation in our lord and saviour’s arrival, The Star will just about do it. And if you’re looking for a holiday-themed, family-friendly movie that also pats you on the back for believing the same things as its creative team, then that’s all the better.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.