Boaz (Bo), the mill donkey of Nazareth, finds himself in a position to finally follow his dreams of assisting the King, by pulling the royal caravan. However a chance encounter with the Bible’s Mary and Joseph quickly changes his outlook on life.
1 hour, 26 minutes
November 17, 2017
Director: Timothy Reckart
Writers: Carlos Kotkin (screenplay and story) & Simon Moore (story).
Composer: John Paesano
Starring: Steven Yeun, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Christopher Plummer, Keegan-Michael Key, Aidy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy
When the staff at GUG first heard about this movie, we experienced a mixture of emotions. First of all, we were elated to hear that the tale of Christ’s birth was getting a nation-wide release in cinemas. Then there was the gut-punching realization that it was produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment… the same guys that gave us the paint-drying fun film, The Emoji Movie. We have faith, just not in this movie, and definitely not in the idea that Hollywood can present a story that respects the source material. Drawing the short straw, I was the one offered up to review this potentially offensive monstrosity. So grab your pitchforks and let’s bravely dive in!
Violence/Scary Images: A large, muscular man continuously pursues Mary throughout the film. He is usually seen with a hand on the hilt of his partially sheathed sword. It is strongly suggested that if he were to reach Mary, then she would be killed. One human character falls off a cliff–other characters react to their fall, and the victim’s helmet rolls emptily along the ground, suggesting that they died, though it is not directly shown.
There is some animal and human violence, though most of it is done in a slapstick style, e.g. the animals are trying to escape the humans, and they cause havoc throughout town during the chase sequence. There are two mean dogs that frighten all the other animals. One dog gobbles up a mouse in its mouth but spits it out alive a few seconds later. The dogs are treated cruelly by their owner; they are continuously chained up, and at one stage the master decides to drop them off a cliff, sacrificing them in order to save himself. The dogs chase and snap their teeth at other characters.
Two donkeys are hooked up to a mill, forced to walk in circles to grind the grain, all day every day. A character haphazardly falls down a ravine–it’s in a comical fashion where the injuries don’t really count.
Language/Crude Humor: Twice a bird mentions the benefits of a well-timed ‘poop.’ Any derogatory name-calling found in the film is impressively articulate and does not resort to common slurs or swear words.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Sexual Content: Mary wonders how she is going to break the news to Joseph that she is pregnant. It is clear that it will be difficult for Joseph to hear. The discussion actually takes place on screen, though the film wisely sidesteps the cultural taboos and any birds and the bees insinuations by making out that the situation is awkward purely because of the task that God has placed on the couple. Joseph prays to God mainly to ensure whether he is the right man to help raise the Lord’s child, as opposed to considering divorce.
Spiritual Content: The film is about the birth of Jesus. It covers the events found in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts. It includes: Mary’s angelic visitation, her return from living with Elizabeth whilst pregnant, Joseph’s meeting with an angel, King Herod’s plans for infanticide, the census, the star, the Magi’s visit, and the shepherds seeing an angel. These events are presented through the eyes of various animal characters. Throughout the film, the characters often pray, and they discuss the role God plays in their lives.
Other Negative Content: The Star contains depictions of the first-century treatment of animals, though kindness is displayed through certain characters. It also touches on the infanticide that occurred under King Herod’s reign. There are a number of changes from the Scriptural account of Christ’s birth. Interactions between Biblical figures and the animal cast are added. The timeline is changed: the Magi plot begins before the birth of Christ. Elements from the Sunday school version of the Christmas story are represented, deviating away from historical accuracy. Other examples of the changes from the Biblical text are discussed more thoroughly in the review below.
Positive Content: Not only does this film provide a straightforward rendition of Christ’s birth, but it also contains other important messages and themes. The characters repeatedly show their faith in God in times of hardship, but they also have the wisdom to know that just because God is with them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that life’s journey will be an easy one. The importance of family, friendship and having a place to call home are also displayed, while there’s also a tale of forgiveness and redemption.
Okay, maybe we were too eager to haul out those farming tools. Put them back. Back, I say! We don’t need them. The Star is actually a sweet retelling of the Christmas story that’s direct and respectful in its focus, and one that’s nicely aimed at young Christian audiences.
It’s shameful to admit that I went to the cinema ready to answer the question, “How can this film offend me?” It’s certainly not the aim of the movie, and I really had to dig for the problems that I do list in this review. Yet the truth is that when a story is using Scripture as its source, it is treated differently compared to other book adaptations.
At the start of the end credits, a title card pops up where the film acknowledges that it has taken liberties with the text, however, they’ve aimed to keep the essence of the Gospel story. While its placement may have served better in the movie’s opening scrawl, it does perfectly summarize what The Star has done.
They’ve condensed the events surrounding Christ’s birth, tweaked the timeline, logically filled in a few blanks, and added more conflict, but there’s nothing that’s necessarily anti-Biblical or utterly offensive here. It’s not wildly explorative like Noah, or hideously controversial like The Last Temptation of Christ. Instead, it’s more in the realm of Ben Hur; there’s a good deal of fiction, but it’s spattered with some theological and Holy Spirit bombs as well.
Yet, generally speaking, Christians tend to feel uncomfortable about Scripture being adapted. I believe it stems back to Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:19, which serve as warnings to not add or subtract from God’s Word. The reasons are obvious, though artistic expressions of the text begin to fall into a grey area. Books are adapted so the narrative can be reshaped into the formula that audiences are used to consuming on screen. But do these tweaks add and subtract from Scripture in the way the Bible condemns? Some Christians have interpreted these verses as such; in which case, this isn’t an issue unique to The Star but applies to all inspired and semi-fictional works. If you share this viewpoint, then I cannot recommend this film (or any Christian movies based on the Biblical narrative, really).
Other Christians interpret these verses differently or assess the situation on a case-by-case basis. The creators of The Star seem to hold the same beliefs, or at the very least appear to be rather tentative in their handling of the Biblical portions of the story. Unlike other book adaptations, The Star is noticeably partitioned. The animals go off and do their own thing, while Mary and Joseph follow the standard Christmas narrative (which isn’t historically accurate, but really, the Church has been peddling the Sunday school version for ages, so we’ve only got ourselves to blame). There are only a handful of scenes where the two narratives truly intersect, and when they do, it’s fairly innocuous; it’s not peddling any untruths that will affect a young Christian’s understanding of salvation, which is the most important aspect to protect.
The Star follows the journey of a young donkey called Bo, short for Boaz. (All the characters are named after people from the Bible, which is a cute idea as it offers an opportunity for parents to tell their children about each animal’s namesake after the film). Essentially in a life of slavery at a mill, Boaz dreams of getting the best job an animal can have–pulling the royal caravan and parading around the king of the land. His goal gets derailed when an injury leads him to the care of Mary and Joseph. Adults can see where this story is heading a mile off.
Meanwhile, The Star makes the logical choice by having King Herod as the main enemy. As Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem due to a census isn’t a compelling story for a feature-length film (though 2006’s The Nativity Story certainly tried), an antagonist is needed to provide more conflict, raise the stakes, and to drive the characters together and move the plot forward. Although the sequencing of events is different, at least it’s a decision stemming from Scripture and the main villain isn’t something completely fictional. Though it does push those boundaries a little.
Since it’s hard to pull off a screenplay where the antagonist is physically far away, Herod’s villainous presence is instead represented through a bulky, leering henchman that has been commanded to carry out his will. With the evil sidekick armed with two vicious dogs, the animals in the movie are distinctly aware of this man’s murderous mission and frequently stop him, much to the obliviousness of Mary and Joseph. Once again we’ve got that partition in place. The problem is that it’s quite disturbing to have a murderer secretly hunting down Mary and her unborn child. Although it’s surprisingly common in a kid’s film to see the villain wanting to kill off the hero, it will still be too much for sensitive children.
The moments when the animals interact with the Bible’s historical figures do tend to sound worse on paper. For instance, Joseph and Bo butt heads a number of times throughout the film, with the man growing increasingly irritated with the stubborn useless donkey. I described this to a friend, and they inwardly cringed at the thought of such a Biblical character being portrayed that way. Yet it’s actually quite humorous and cute when played out on screen. The Star does genuinely contain laugh out loud moments. But it’s not at the expense of a Biblical figure’s integrity.
What I loved about this movie was that it humanized the people that we traditionally view with an abundance of reverence–something we’ve done to the point that it unintentionally stripped them of their personhood. I’m sure we’ve all seen a church drama where the actors all speak in High English and have the personality of a holier-than-thou android. It makes for a bland performance; mistakenly thinking that by showing human emotion it somehow undermines who they were. The performances in The Star are honest and genuine, and refreshingly not made of cardboard.
In a beautiful heartfelt moment on the way to Bethlehem, Joseph rests beside his heavily pregnant wife on the side of the road, lamenting how arduous their journey has become. Mary agrees but wisely replies that just because something is God’s will, it doesn’t make it easy. Did this moment happen in the Bible? Nope. Is it, therefore, anti-Scriptural or untrue? Certainly not! I had to clasp my hands to mouth to avoid shouting out “PREACH IT, MARY!” The Star fills those gaps in the narrative with humanizing moments and nuggets of wisdom that don’t necessarily go against the teachings of Scripture.
The only scene that may raise a few theological issues is the one where the donkey tries praying to God. It’s a sweet moment, though be prepared to field the “Do animals go to heaven?” question after the film. What I absolutely adored from this retelling of the Christmas story is that by showing the events through the eyes of animals, it really brought forth all those verses in Scripture concerning the rejoicing of creation. It narrows in on how momentous and special it was to have the Son of God come from such humble beginnings.
Yet some of the film’s other themes and messages aren’t well developed. There is a side plot involving Ruth the sheep and how she doesn’t fit in with her flock. Her character’s backstory is never clarified, and once her journey does come full circle, it ultimately feels rushed, with no follow up after the conclusion. The pacing around Bo’s shifting desires also feels off. At one point in the film, he is given a distinct choice, though considering he is the main character, it resolves too early, with his change of heart happening too easily with little to no conflict.
Essentially there’s no proper development or resolve with Ruth’s side plot, whilst with Bo’s journey, the payoff is incredibly delayed in favor of throwing focus onto Mary and Joseph. Due to the partition of the plot lines being in place, the film has a distinct sense of being a conglomeration of shorter stories as opposed to one cohesive unit. It does all come together in the end, but barely.
It’s not a perfect film. But it does have a heartbeat. Personally, I despise what the Christmas holiday has become; I’m quite the Scrooge. Yet The Star doesn’t cater towards or even acknowledge the messy additions that have been added throughout the centuries. Right from the opening sequence it boldly declares the good news that the Son of God is coming. In today’s times of political correctness, it actually took me aback to hear the message spoken so blatantly and not watered down!
Obviously, the film doesn’t cover the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, so some of the context is lost regarding the reason why Jesus is considered a King. Yet the movie provides a great way to open up that discussion with children, though non-believers will no doubt come away with a different experience. Even though The Star is limited to only effectively sharing the news with the children of Christian parents, this is still an amazing step for a Hollywood film.
It’s even more amazing to report that it’s a technically proficient movie as well. The animation is not as refined as Pixar, but it’s still nicely polished. It’s on the basic side but it’s not a rushed job by any means. The music is also surprisingly good. There are a few neat Christmas carol remixes that even a humbug like me enjoyed. As of writing this, The Star has even been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song – “The Star” by Mariah Carey and Marc Shaiman. Considering these awards are a precursor to the Oscars, it’s exciting to think that a film about the Kingship of Christ could potentially stand alongside works that don’t promote a theological worldview, allowing The Star to be the beacon of light it so charmingly depicts.
It may not be a perfect film, nor is it flawless in its historical accuracy, but dare I say that the Holy Spirit is at work regardless. At a time when films like Moana and Coco dominate the genre, sharing the beliefs of different cultures, it’s incredibly important to support movies like The Star, as a way to have a voice and to stake a claim in the market. It delivers a strong, clear message about the coming of the Messiah, and is presented in a way that is not only entertaining for children, but it also serves as a reminder as to why we bother celebrating Christmas at all.
+ Direct Christian message
+ Scriptural changes kept to a minimum
+ Respectful of the source material
+ Great opportunity to open discussion about Jesus with children.
+ It's actually kinda cute!
- Potential murder and infanticide might be a tad too heavy for kids!
- Wouldn't recommend it to children with a dog phobia either.
- Bit of a hodgepodge of stories.
- Parents may need to field the "Do animals go to Heaven?" question afterwards.
- Hopefully the kids won't also ask why Mary was awkward about telling Joseph she was pregnant.