Two of my favorite Bible movies are animated films that came out within a couple of years of each other nearly two decades ago.
One is the brilliant 2000 stop-motion Jesus movie The Miracle Maker, co-created by U.K. and Russian animators who also collaborated on a series of Old Testament shorts (Testament: The Bible in Animation). The other is DreamWorks’ terrific hand-drawn musical-comedy-adventure Moses movie, The Prince of Egypt.
I would love to expand this brief list by adding the computer-animated The Star, from Sony’s faith-based Affirm Films imprint. For one thing, families looking to supplement secular seasonal viewing like Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story and for all I know Die Hard (who am I to judge?) with something having to do with the birth of Jesus have limited options.
For another, one doesn’t see many Bible movies nowadays with a cast that includes the likes of Christopher Plummer, Oprah Winfrey, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Heaton, Ving Rhames and Mariah Carey.
Attentive kids may notice that St. Joseph (Zachary Levi) sounds just like Flynn Rider from Tangled. Some parents might recognize the Virgin Mary’s voice (Gina Rodriguez) as the title character in the CW’s Jane the Virgin. The protagonist, Bo the donkey, is voiced by Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead. Bo’s best friend, Dave the pigeon, is voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, who starred in Comedy Central’s Key & Peele.
Finally, director and animator Timothy Reckart is a talented filmmaker as well as a devout Catholic. Ever since I saw his Oscar-nominated 2012 short Head Over Heels in theaters, I’ve wondered what he might do with a feature film.
I expect The Star, which retells the story of the birth of Jesus as a talking-animal comedy about a miniature donkey who wants to be a part of something big and important, will wind up in annual holiday viewing in many households. It’s a little like The Nativity Story meets The Secret Life of Pets, which probably sounds like a winning formula to some people.
If you think The Secret Life of Pets is as mediocre as I think it is, you may be less charmed. Both films are full of haphazard plotting and lame gags. Oh, and both include mean characters who are redeemed by narrative fiat, with no emotional arc or narrative reckoning, a kind of cheap grace.
The low point, unless it’s one of the long lineup of butt/poop gags, may be the contrived “We’re Not a Team” crisis, in which characters who have banded together fall out amid hard words and go their separate ways. You know, like the “There’s no ‘we’ this time, pal” moment in Monsters, Inc. Or the “Code: I’ll just pack my things and go!” scene in Megamind.
Of course the “Not a Team” crisis is inevitably followed by the “I’m Sorry I Said That” reunion. In this case, our donkey and dove team, Bo and Dave, have joined forces with a chipper sheep named Ruth (SNL’s Aidy Bryant) who guides Bo, sort of, past treacherous cliffs to help reunite him with Joseph and Mary. But the reunion ends badly, and Bo snaps at Ruth, “I never should have followed you in the first place!”
Another stock scene, which could be called “I Got This,” involves a cocky male who disregards a sensible woman’s cautions, leading to embarrassing comeuppance. The cocky male in this case, alas, is Joseph, whose confident stretching and neck-cracking before trying to throw a rope around an unwilling Bo’s neck while a concerned Mary looks on is a sure sign that he’s going to take one pratfall after another.
Slapstick and rude humor have their place, potentially even in a Bible movie (The Prince of Egypt has both). Still, casting Joseph as the cocky male falling on his face is disconcerting. On a similar note, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has more than one cutting line for her not-very-venerable husband Zechariah. (Parting shot: “I think I liked you better when you couldn’t talk.”)
Come to think of it, the motif of male comeuppance is echoed among the animals. Bo and Dave loftily disregard Ruth the sheep, whom they regard as beneath their notice — until they realize that they need her as a guide.
Then there’s Tracy Morgan and Tyler Perry as a couple of male camels who are incredulously derisive of anything said by Oprah’s camel Deborah. This, despite the fact that Deborah’s utterances are infallibly, even prophetically correct. Meanwhile, the males inanely debate one topic after another while Deborah tolerantly looks on.
There are some nice bits. In spite of his initially antagonistic relationship with Bo, Joseph comes across as likable and earnest. Both Mary and Joseph exhibit a winsome uncertainty at times. Mary wonders how to explain to Joseph what’s happening, reassuring herself, “It’s all good news, all good news.”
Joseph’s response to Mary’s good news is not doubt or anger, as it has so often been depicted, but self-doubt: Is a lowly carpenter up to the task? Later there’s a moving scene in which Mary grapples with deepening realization that while God has a plan, that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard.
But The Star undercuts some of the big things. The film opens with the Annunciation (“9 months B.C.,” per a witty caption), and the angel is shrewdly portrayed as a shimmering brightness without definite form. But the angel’s lines are rushed and matter-of-fact, and the whole scene seems hurried and muted. Consider the numinous awe of the burning bush in The Prince of Egypt or the revelatory power of the baptism at the Jordan in The Miracle Maker. Why not go for something like that?
Overshadowing the proceedings is an immense, implacable, Terminator-like Roman soldier, accompanied by two ferocious dogs (Ving Rhames and Gariel Iglesias), dispatched by Herod (Plummer) to track down the mother of the unborn Messiah and “get rid of the problem.”
This gives the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem a pursuit/chase dimension, culminating in an action climax in Bethlehem — none of which comes to the attention of Joseph or Mary as they focus on the impending Nativity. The denouement offers a sort of redemption, but not an emotionally or dramatically satisfying sort.
To my mind, depicting the first act of the greatest story ever told as a dumb, formulaic Hollywood cartoon with a sassy pigeon shaking his tail feathers in viewers’ faces is a net loss, not a modest gain. These are not images I want in my kids’ minds in connection with the Christmas story, even if the movie appealed to them. (It doesn’t.)
In the end, what I liked best about The Star was the pastel-colored illustrations over the closing credits, depicting the child Jesus growing up. Was this trick of continuing the story over the closing credits borrowed by American animators from Japanese animated films like those of Studio Ghibli?
Whatever the case, such closing images often evoke a kind of aimless, charmingly picturesque quality that runs through entire films like My Neighbor Totoro. If only American animators would learn to approach this quality in their storytelling.
Caveat Spectator: Mild menace and slapstick action; mild rude humor. Kids and up.