‘Journey to Bethlehem’: Despite Moments of Light, Nativity Musical Is Rough Ride

New film takes many detours from the real route, dropping this and adding that, for dramatic and comic effect.

Movie poster for 'Journey to Bethlehem' in theaters today.
Movie poster for 'Journey to Bethlehem' in theaters today. (photo: Affirm Films / Sony )

The journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth was not the smoothest trip for St. Joseph and Mary. In several ways, the new musical film Journey to Bethlehem is not always the smoothest either, despite the filmmakers’ disclaimer: “While taking some creative license, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the message of the Greatest Story Ever Told.” This story of the Nativity is the project of Affirm Films, which has made faith-based and inspirational movies like Fireproof, Paul: Apostle of Christ and Heaven Is for Real

Despite good intentions regarding bringing the Nativity tale to life, there are many detours from the real route, dropping this and adding that, for dramatic and comic effect. Yes, that’s right: comic effect, including using St. Gabriel, who has to practice his lines to make sure he gets his message right and is rather clumsy at first, for laughs. Add to this the running comic relief of the three Wise Men and their straight-out-of-Broadway Three Wise Guys number.

Similar show tunes mixed with pop music move the story along. Twelve new ones were written by award-winning Adam Anders, Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom. Among their many award-winning credits is High School Musical. Anders directed the new film as well. 


Missing the Marian Mark

The first major song, called Mary’s Getting Married, is a lively production number that showcases Mary and her two sisters on a shopping trip as the whole village sings and dances to convince her to get married. But an unhappy Mary sings, “Maybe married means that I’m kissing all my dreams goodbye” and lists what awaits her: “keeping house and making babies, going shopping, all the chores.”

Minutes before this song, the audience meets Mary (played by Fiona Palomo) for the first time as uncomfortable onlookers during a discussion between her and her father, Joachim. She tells him that she wants to be a teacher like him. Remember your biblical history here: Teachers then were male-only rabbis. He says she has to get married; it’s tradition. She answers that he is responsible for her dreams, having “put these crazy ideas in my head by having me study the Scriptures day after day.” Although she eventually concedes and obeys — “As you wish, Father” — this is a most unbelievable portrayal of Mary.

The audience meets Joseph (Milo Manheim) when Mary goes to the market and accidentally, and predictably, meets him for the first time, not knowing her father has just made arrangements for their betrothal; nor does he know who she is. Not to spoil the plot, but the scene unfolds right out of the typical movie-land playbook, as they predictably don’t hit things off with each other. 

Then, at their betrothal, with some music heavy with a contemporary beat, neither is happy as they later sing a duet called This Will Never Work. Joseph expresses how he is also not fully happy because he had dreams, too, singing that “this wasn’t in my plans either. I’m an inventor. I’m coming up with ideas that could change the world, but my father said, ‘You’re getting married, son.’” Again, Hollywood’s journey is not the real Joseph’s journey. What happened to being a good carpenter for the patron saint of carpenters?

Again, the music and lyrics are contemporary show tunes. Can we accept a Mary who sings, “It’s hard to have faith?” But Joseph sings, “We don’t understand … could be a part of God’s plan.” Full of doubts, both continue, “Can we make this work?”

This is a non-biblical depiction of Mary so far. It is only later, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, that there begins a bit of softening to her character. Later, she becomes more believable, with the birth of Jesus. By then, the movie is nearly over.

Not so incidentally, in many respects, this familial visit misses the mark as it strays far from Luke. Elizabeth’s revelatory greeting to Mary (Luke 1) has gone by the wayside, and Mary never proclaims a word from her answer to Elizabeth — where is her Magnificat? If ever there was a place in a musical version of the Nativity story for a major song, this is it. 

Instead, there is Herod’s son (Joel Smallbone) and soldiers, already searching for an unwed woman who is expecting a child. The chronology is mixed up, not to mention the loose and invented facts, all for intended dramatic effect.


Viewer, Beware

Herod, played by Antonio Banderas, is exceptionally evil-looking and egomaniacal. He and a chorus sing It’s Good to Be King about how wicked he is while the soldiers do a bit of robotic contemporary choreography. While it is likely the filmmakers might have meant one section of the lyrics to reflect Herod’s mania, the lines also dangerously border on the blasphemous, as he uses in reference to himself the inclusion of the sung ending of the Our Father: “the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.”

For dramatic contrast or not, much too much time is spent on Herod in various scenes, including the comic-relief Three Wise Guys. The song focuses on the Three Kings giving Herod gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold, as some lyrics, sounding like Handel’s Messiah, say he will reign forever and ever. Maybe the filmmakers were going for irony, but, at best, it’s in exceptionally poor taste.

The recurring appearances of the Wise Men see them on the way to Bethlehem well before Mary is married, and, later, they arrive at the stable minutes after the birth of Jesus, while the shepherds never show up.

The trio is half-serious, half-comic, especially Melchior, who is always intent on eating fine foods.

And then there’s the treatment of Joseph’s dream, turned into another Broadway-style musical production number with a large cast, as Mary appears to be on trial. On a smaller scale comes a lovely song where the newlyweds dance at their small, private wedding, surrounded by hundreds of pinpoint starlights.


Moving Moments

One thing the film gets right is having Joseph and Mary around the same age, with Joseph just slightly older than his betrothed, not portrayed as an old man. Here, he sings, “I can never choose to learn to love another,” while, unbelievably, Mary adds, “Maybe one day I could learn to love you too.”

Not to leave anyone or anything out in this playbook moviemaking, even the donkey gets to save Mary at a critical moment. 

And in the big scene in the stable, Joseph readies the manger, and at the birth of Jesus, the exceptional effects fit the time and scene in a moving manner. Here, used properly and sung by the Three Kings is the verse: “Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.” In a sweet lullaby, Mary sings, “Now I understand the words you told me. I’m holding all the answer in my arms; looking down upon this brand-new life, I see Emmanuel, a Savior and King.” Palomo shines at this moment, as she does in the next, when, in this telling, it is not the angel who saves the Holy Family and directs them to leave for safety. But this scene does make a dramatic point about character and the way even the newborn Jesus immediately affected others, as Jesus has affected countless souls over the centuries. It is indeed a moving scene. And there is a final homey vignette of the Holy Family at the end.

The film may miss the mark throughout, but the words of Mary’s mother, Anne, come to be fulfilled: “Sometimes God’s plans for us are even bigger than we can imagine.”

This movie is rated PG for thematic elements.


The filmmakers created short study guides for families, for adults/teens and for children. They include the passages from the Gospel (except for Mary’s Magnificat!), other biblical references, and thoughtful study questions about how these events and Jesus’ coming relate to each one’s life. In this regard, seeing Journey to Bethlehem can and should lead at least some people back to the original sources to learn more about Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the beginning of the story of our salvation.