Making a film about a religious topic is always tricky. The studio has to make it mainstream enough to appeal to a mass audience while respecting the beliefs of the most faithful. In the world of animation, films like The Prince of Egypt and even VeggieTales have been able to walk that tightrope pretty well. This weekend, we have the latest attempt: Sony Pictures Animation’s The Star. The movie tells the story of the nativity of Jesus Christ but, unfortunately, it gets bogged down in a generic road trip story with a modern sensibility and humor that does not work.
Let’s start with the positive. The best part of The Star are the scenes with Joseph (Zachary Levi) and Mary (Gina Rodriguez). There is the right amount of reverence in many moments, like when Joseph and Mary each individually get their witness of Mary’s immaculate conception. I also liked them in the finding the inn and actual nativity scenes. It was quite sweet.
The music is also very strong with songs from Mariah Carey, Fifth Harmony, Yolanda Adams, Saving Forever, Casting Crowns, Pentatonix, and more. If you enjoy Christmas carols like “We Three Things,” “O Holy Night” and “What Child is This,” then The Star soundtrack is worth a download.
Unfortunately for The Star, Mary and Joseph are not the lead characters of the movie. Instead, Sony chose to make our protagonist a donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun). This could work as I have a fondness for the Rankin Bass special Nestor: the Long Eared Donkey. However, Bo’s storyline ends up being a tedious road trip movie with his kooky friends, Ruth the Sheep (Aidy Bryant) and Dave the Dove (Keegan-Michael Key). Bo has escaped from backbreaking work at a sawmill and his previous owner spends the movie chasing the animals around trying to kill them. For a while, you forget the movie is religious at all and it feels more like a Bethlehem edition of the Ice Age films. It’s pretty dull and bland.
The humor completely falls flat in The Star. Perhaps very small kids will find it funny but I found it more annoying than anything else. This is especially the case with a trio of camels, one named Deborah voiced by Oprah Winfrey. I did not find them funny or engaging at all. There are also many big names that get little to nothing to do, which can be distracting in an animated film. I wish they would just use voice actors rather than token celebrities.
The Star suffers from having a bit of an identity crisis. Its animal characters are unlikely to interest adults like a film such as The Prince of Egypt does; however, Bo and his problems might not appeal to small children who have seen so many similar characters. The film also plays down a lot of the spirituality in favor of jokes, which will annoy faith-based audiences.
In the end, The Star has good intentions but it can’t successfully combine its animal hijinks with a Jesus narrative. It wasn’t funny and the road trip shenanigans grew old fast. If you can stream it down the road, it might be worth a watch as a background movie for small children but there are so many holiday films that are much better, for all audiences.