THE STAR (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG
(for some thematic elements)
Released: November 17, 2017
Runtime: 86 minutes
Director: Timothy Reckart
Starring: Steven Yeun, Keegan-Michael Key, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Aidy Bryant, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Plummer

Cute and hilarious aren’t the first virtues that one normally associates with a Nativity Story, particularly a good one, but that’s exactly what The Star is.

Told from the perspective of the animals, with covers of Christmas carols old and new, this lightweight take on The Greatest Story Ever Told is a welcome variation. Unburdened by the self-conscious melodramatic import that bogs down many a Biblical adaptation, The Star finds clever ways to deliver a reverent telling in a surprisingly entertaining package.

Its hero is Bo, a donkey with a destiny. Voiced by Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), he and his best friend Dave (a dove) dream of marching in the Royal Caravan, mesmerized by the honor and grandeur of escorting a king. But Providence sets them on a different path, one more humble than their lofty ambitions, yet eternally bigger than anything they could possibly imagine: as escorts for the King of Kings.

Mary and Joseph are very Disney-fied, but in good ways. She’s sweet and enchanting (Gina Rodriguez, appropriately from TV’s Jane the Virgin), he’s affable and sacrificial (Zachary Levi, who did the same in Tangled). The screenplay does a deft job of simplifying the virgin conception, the inevitable conversation Mary must have with Joseph, as well as his initial struggle with the unexpected news.

This smarter-than-expected script never gets unnecessarily deep into exegetical weeds, but neither does it water down the miracle that has occurred. God’s at work here, and that’s really what we need to know.

Bo, Dave, and a whole assortment of animals make for an endearing ensemble of lovable critters. Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live) is wonderful as a sheep whose smarter and braver than her flighty cheeriness lets on, but the real standouts are Keegan-Michael Key as Dave the dove and, in a smaller role, Tracy Morgan as one of the camels for the three wisemen.

Key is the comic heart and soul, a constant scene-stealer, and Morgan remains a truly singular persona. Between just the two of them, Key and Morgan stack up more legitimate LOL laughs than most other comedies this year.

There’s a subplot that has King Herod (Christopher Plummer, in a perfectly voiced cameo) sending one of his big, bad palace brutes – along with two vicious dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) – to track down the rumored would-be king. The tension it provides is boilerplate, but it’s still effective as an inciting action for Bo to come to Mary and Joseph’s rescue.

The sensibility here is unabashedly modern. Dialogue, personalities, and humor are all patently 21st Century. Glaringly anachronistic though it may be, the whimsy it conjures sets the whole endeavor free from being stiff or stilted. The tone exudes charm and sweetness, not crudeness (yes, that even goes for the compulsory fart jokes).

Don’t expect strong exegetical doctrine beyond the absolute basics, or the occasional throwaway joke (like a reference to when Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, couldn’t speak).

For example, Roman Catholic and Orthodox viewers, who venerate The Virgin much more than other Christian traditions, may find this Mary a bit too Protestant for their liking, but not offensively so. With her, as with all aspects, this film’s heart is in the right place.

Sure, The Star takes dramatic license to the extreme, but when an angel speaks it speaks biblically. When characters pray, they pray purely. In fact, believers will be encouraged to see that prayer becomes a key catalyst.

The story’s themes are also strong, demonstrating that God’s plans are always good even though they’re not always easy. And as a capper, the Holy Night finale includes redemption for two seemingly unforgivable characters.

Not quite immaculately conceived, this is unlikely to become a full-fledged Christmas classic, but its engaging mix of comedy and tenderness is more than enough to make The Star a comfy, cozy go-to holiday perennial.

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