“THE STAR” — 2 1/2 stars — Voices of Steven Yeun, Kristin Chenoweth, Zachary Levi, Aidy Bryant, Keegan-Michael Key; PG (thematic elements); in general release
“The Star” is a tricky film to wrap your head around. On the one hand, it’s a sweet movie with a good heart that is trying to give children a way to celebrate the traditional Nativity story. At the same time, its creative interpretation of that story might wind up discouraging the audience most interested in embracing it.
Timothy Reckart’s animated film is built around one central premise: It is the story of the Nativity, as told through the eyes of the animals that were there. Primarily, it is told through the eyes of the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem.
When we first meet Bo (voiced by Steven Yeun), he is stuck in a Nazareth mill grinding grain, with little hope for the future. Bo aspires to join the royal caravan, a privileged assignment that seems far out of the donkey’s hoofed grasp. But with a little help from a fellow donkey (Kris Kristofferson) and a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key), Bo gets free and sets out in search of his destiny.
Instead of joining the royal caravan, Bo winds up with a couple of young newlyweds who are expecting. At the opening of the film, we meet Joseph (Zachary Levi) and Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and learn of their divine calling as parents of the Only Begotten. Later they are married, and, after linking up with Bo, they set out for Bethlehem to be taxed.
In the meantime, a different perspective comes from Cyrus (Tyler Perry), Deborah (Oprah Winfrey) and Felix (Tracy Morgan), three camels carrying a trio of wise men toward a new star in the East. This journey is being shadowed by King Herod (Christopher Plummer), who has heard of a new king and plans to eliminate the competition.
This is where the conflict comes in. In a move that foreshadows the massacre of the innocents that will follow, Herod sends a servant and a pair of nasty dogs (Thaddeus and Rufus, voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias, respectively) on a journey to Nazareth, with orders to kill the Christ child. So rather than follow the comparatively conflict-free narrative of the Nativity (since aside from the struggle to find lodging, it’s a fairly linear story), the film has Joseph and Mary hunted by one of Herod’s servants on their trip to Bethlehem.
The results are interesting. We’re not exactly talking about Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," where he turned Noah into a rock-giant zealot who weighed thoughts of infanticide. But the most likely audience for “The Star” might raise an eyebrow or two as Reckart applies a lot of creative license to the source material, tying it together with a stream of gospel music interludes.
“The Star” is ultimately aimed at a young audience, and while adults will probably cringe at some of the generous cornball humor, the kids will probably enjoy a few laughs. (They’ll also most likely miss the subtext of a scene where Mary has to tell Joseph she’s pregnant, which feels like a curious inclusion.)
“The Star” may not make your “Best Christmas Movies” list, but Reckart has turned an interesting idea into a sincere and curious film.
“The Star” is rated PG for some thematic elements; running time: 86 minutes.