Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of The Star by Emily Waples



It's fun to be teaching a course on Jesus in Film when a new Jesus film comes out! The Star (dir. Timothy Reckardt) was released in November in time for the pre-Christmas crowds. I gave my students the opportunity to write a review of the film for extra credit. One of them was so good that I asked her if I could reproduce it here:

Review of The Star
Emily Waples

The Star (2017), directed by Timothy Reckart, begins with a Pentatonix rendition of Carol of the Bells. The Nativity story that unfolds is as rethought and modernized as the opening a capella song. A subtitle appears on screen, immediately tipping us off to the films historical inaccuracy: 9 months BC. Then again, in an animated film featuring talking animals, were we expecting much regard for historicity?

The film begins with Mary in Nazareth (faithful to Luke 1.26) and the angels apparition to her. At its onset, the angelic apparition is not unlike that in Jesus of Nazareth, if more fantastic: a bright light fills the room, taking on a vaguely angelic form. The light crystallizes as stuff best described as stardust. Later, the same stardust indicates the angels apparition to Joseph, a scene omitted from the film (perhaps to save time, perhaps to avoid more discussion than necessary of Marys inexplicable pregnancy parents dont want questions about the birds and the bees. Marys quick acceptance of the angels words serves the same purpose). The plot proceeds and, like in Jesus of Nazareth, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1.39), a visit only detailed by Marys return to Nazareth with her cousins (6 months later, the subtitle tells us), just in time for her and Josephs wedding feast. Somehow a single shawl hides her pregnancy. When Joseph does discover her pregnancy, hes not angry, as in The Nativity (2010). If he was, again with the unwanted questions. Josephs character develops to be a worried but good-hearted father-to-be, one who several times prays to God for a sign. And that sign is Bo, the donkey.

The films few (and, for the most part, secondary) human characters are worth examining with regards to their biblical origins (or lack thereof). Following the Disney princess trope, Marys morality is established through her uncommon kindness towards animals. The primary recipient of her care and the films central character is a donkey, whom she names Bo (voiced by Steven Yeun). Both she and Joseph are depicted as Jewish. The part of the plot revolving around Mary and Joseph reflects a more Lukan influence: Nazareth, Elizabeth and Zechariah, census, manger, though it balances the Lukan emphasis on Mary with the Matthean focus on Joseph so that the two share the spotlight. With regards to the shepherds (Luke) and the Magi (Matthew), the latter play a more substantial role, if only because the addition of three camels to the cast of animal characters must have been irresistible to writers Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin. Still, the film does not neglect the shepherds: the apparition of the heavenly host to them is included, relying heavily on Ruth, the sheep who befriends Bo and Dave the dove (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) (Luke 2.8). For his part, Herod is a classic baddie. The wise men (Matthew) visit him, and while their conversation takes a backseat to the camels antics, the film at least alludes to the darker aspects of the Matthean nativity narrative: Herod sets his helmeted hunter (hes dressed as a Roman soldier) and his two dogs (they provide a voice for the silent assassin) after Mary, and, consulting a scribe, remarks, If you cant kill this one child, Ill kill them all. This is the closest the film comes to the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2.16), but it is an appropriate choice given the intended audience.

Though I could not sympathize with the complaints of famous actors serving as distractions in Jesus films like The Greatest Story Ever Told, in The Star, familiar voices frequently take you out of the action: Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) as Mary, Zachary Levi (Disneys Tangled) as Joseph, Aidy Bryant (SNL, Girls) as Ruth, the peppy sheep, and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah, the strangely prescient camel whose reverent remarks about the baby Jesus frequently set goofball fellow camels Felix and Cyrus guffawing (Tracy Morgan, SNL, and Tyler Perry, the Madea movies, respectively). A host of popular singers join them: Gabriel Iglesias as Rufus, Kelly Clarkson as Leah, Kristin Chenoweth as Abby, and Mariah Carey as Rebecca.

The film relies heavily on slapstick, screwball and situational humor (chase scenes are frequent in the film). It is at times quite self-conscious (or self-referential), taking advantage of popularized Nativity elements to allude to the made-up plot revolving around Bo. For example, the older donkey tells him, We grind grain, we dont carry kings and you know Bo will prove him wrong and carry the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem (a popularized image not biblically founded). Bo, turning away from his dream of joining the so called royal caravan comes to help Mary and Joseph on their trip to Bethlehem (like The Nativity and The Nativity Story (2006), The Star has a significant road trip sequence).

Humor aside, The Star pushes broad Christian tropes: forgiveness (of Rufus and Thaddeus, the soldiers dogs) and the power of prayer (at times, the speed and way with which God seems to answer Josephs requests makes you wonder if the film is pointing to coincidence, rather than divine intervention; more likely, however, the film is remarking on the unexpected way God is said to answer prayers: Joseph, who is not fond of Bo, asks God for help and the donkey appears). Reckart includes a subtle commentary on the meaning of Christmas: the royal caravan, which Bo seeks to join, is represented by the unmistakable sound of jingle bells. You almost expect Santa to show up. But what is the true meaning of Christmas? Bo gives a definitive answer, turning his back on the caravan and the jingle bells, returning to help Mary. The story has an evangelical bend, too, in the story of Ruth, who leaves her flock to follow the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2.2). The message is spelled out for us: following God requires sacrifices. Mary and Joseph verbalize the same idea: Just because God has a plan doesnt mean its going to be easy. Christian platitudes? Yes. But they suit The Star.

The end credits contain a disclaimer that the filmmakers sought to create a playful, fun story while striving to capture the values and essence of the story. If I judge The Star by these criteria, Im inclined to declare the film a moderate success. Its a childrens movie, far more so than any of the films weve seen this semester. It outdoes Godspell (1973), in a good way, and strikes a more humorous tone than The Miracle Maker (2000). The worthwhile comparison with The Young Messiah (2016) is between that films Jesus and Bo, who both display a remarkable ignorance of the divinity of Jesus. Only after everyone else has put two and two together does Bo realize that the baby is king, just in time for him to bow down along with the Magi, shepherds and host of animals (its a pretty nativity picture, though not as impressive as that in The Nativity Story. Perhaps because animation, far easier to manipulate, is not as impressive as a live-action shot). Within its own genres comedy, animated, children’s – The Star is a success. But, revolving around a made-up story about animals, it does not fit well in a classic canon of Jesus films. 


1 comment:

J Andrew Doole said...

Great stuff, Emily!

I wonder if they have left open the possibility for a sequel in which Ruth falls down a well on the Sabbath and Bo ends up carrying Jesus into Jerusalem...