The good news is that the trailers for The Star sell it far too short, making it look like the only thing the Nativity was missing was a lot of dumb singing, talking animals. The bad news is that the movie is still fundamentally about the Nativity from the animals’ perspective, which leads to a lot of whiplash as the story veers from talking animal antics to the Greatest Story Ever Told. The movie also packs in far too many characters for the story to comfortably support and simply glosses over a lot of plot points in ways that yank a heathen like me right out of the movie. This production (a cross-company production from Affirm Films, Walden Media, and the Jim Henson Company, distributed by Sony Pictures Animation) doesn’t reach out beyond its intended target audience, and I don’t think even that target audience is well-served by The Star, even if they do happen to like it.
The Star splits its time between a more-or-less traditional retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph (voiced by Gina Rodriguez and Zachary Levi), and the view on those same events from the point of view of a miniature donkey who Mary dubs Bo (Steven Yeun), Bo’s fast-talking friend Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key), and a sheep seeking something bigger named Ruth. There’s also a plot thread involving the Three Wise Men and their three camels (Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan), along with a tied-in plot thread involving King Herod’s sinister henchman and his two dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) who seek to eliminate the perceived threat to the throne. Add in Bo and Ruth’s backstory, a tiny jerboa (Kristen Chenoweth) who was a witness to the Annunciation, and a tiny bit of plot for seemingly every single animal in the manger, and you get the movie’s biggest problem that it just can’t make any of these narratives very satisfying. About half the characters in the movie can be safely removed with no impact other than the loss of some highly marketable names in the cast list.
The enormous cast means that all of them get cursory treatment before the movie has to move on. The Bible is not exactly explicit in its characterization of Mary and Joseph, but if The Star‘s intention is to make them more human and relatable characters, as the commentary track and supplemental material state, then they needed to have much more human reactions to the things that happen to them. At the start of the movie, when an angel descends and tells Mary she will bear the son of God (with the aforementioned jerboa in the room), Mary’s reaction boils down to, “Oh. OK. Sure.” This strips the moment of the awe that it seems to be aspiring to. The same thing happens when Joseph reacts with the mildest of surprise when he learns that his bride-to-be is six months pregnant on the day of their wedding, and is only barely more put-out when she tells him who the Father is. Attempts to humanize these figures of reverence is thoroughly undermined when neither one reacts in any recognizably human way to their situation. The only comprehensible character trait Joseph has is to be incredibly annoying for the bulk of the movie (enough that we start to wonder what exactly Mary sees in the guy), until the plot requires him to transform near-instantly into a super-nice guy. There are a few scenes and lines of dialogue that are intended to communicate the spiritual struggle he goes through, but the cursory way these scenes are deployed make them all feel like plot hammers pounding the story in the direction it needs to go. Faith can’t replace basic storytelling technique, but it seems like neither Mary nor Joseph get a credible story arc, with faith serving as a poor substitute.
The same thing happens to Bo, Dave, and especially Ruth. Of all the characters in the movie, Bo is the one that ends up getting the most character development since the movie really centers on him, but even with all that, his big choice mid-way through the film still feels more like one made because of plot demands, not because he’s come to some great realization, no matter what the dialogue says. However, Ruth is an entirely squandered opportunity. Early on, she mentions that she saw the star of Bethlehem appear in the sky on the night of the Annunciation, and decided to abandon her flock to follow it in the firm belief that it would lead to something new and better. The problem is that she’s a sheep, and is fundamentally lost without a flock. That has tremendous potential for a deeply compelling character arc about the conflict between instinct and faith that could have been real and genuine and heartbreaking, but it’s only mostly played for a few punch lines and a strange “told you so” moment at the very end of the movie.
The funny talking animal plots don’t completely undermine the more reverent plots, but they certainly don’t add to each other, either. The three camels are nothing but a distraction, even if they do end up yielding some of the funniest moments in the movie. I also sense that in some ways, the funny talking animals are a way to avoid addressing questions and challenges that might be deeply uncomfortable to talk about in a kids film, perhaps out of fear that younger audiences can’t absorb the nuance or that too much doubt would undermine faith. However, a faith that cannot withstand challenge is not faith at all, and some of the greatest Christian scholars throughout history have beautifully documented their struggles with their beliefs. These struggles strengthened their faith instead of undermining it, despite (or, sometimes, because of) a remaining shadow of doubt. I don’t think The Star serves its plot or its faith well by papering over doubt, regardless of the reasons why.
Technically, The Star is serviceable but not likely to impress. It’s a step above the average TV CGI production, and I will say that the movie stretches its clearly meager budget much farther than one would expect. The Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pack presents the movie well, and comes with a small raft of bonus features. The informative commentary track features director Timothy Reckart and producer DeVon Franklin, who are both earnest and were clearly driven by their own faith in making the movie. The commentary doesn’t duplicate much information that can be found in the 2 “making of” featurettes that focus on the all-star voice cast and the crafting of the world of The Star. Another brief featurette titled “Faith All Year Round” shows DeVon Franklin talking with an appealingly diverse group of kids in church about the movie, which convinces me that Mr. Franklin’s intentions are unimpeachable even if I think The Star does not service them as well as he might believe. Some of the kids also give the distinct impression that they’re just telling the grown-up what they think he wants to hear. The remaining bonuses are of a gaggle of music videos and arts-and-crafts projects. The digital copy is compatible with Movies Anywhere.
Many things about The Star convince me that the crew had their hearts in the right place, but simply having good intentions isn’t enough to make a good movie. Maybe the biggest problem that The Star faces is its competition, since A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of the best single animated productions anywhere and communicates the beauty and grace of the Christmas season and the Christian faith far better in 20 minutes than just about any other comparable production before or since. In comparison, The Star looks like the Christian equivalent of those pre-school kids shows that make no effort whatsoever to reach out beyond their target audience. While I don’t doubt that the crews on both those pre-school shows and The Star work hard on their efforts, their sensibilities seem to lead them to be curiously lazy in specific aspects in a way that indicates they may not even be aware of their own blind spots. Perhaps the most damning thing I can say about The Star is that it simultaneously has too much and not enough faith in its own convictions.