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The laws of diminishing returns would lead many to predict that the funniest thing in Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? would be the title itself. Fortunately, this latest installment in director-writer Debbie Isitt’s successful British live-action family franchise is more amusing than expected, although Isitt’s improvisational shooting style still produces a lot of flab, making for a 110-minute running time that feels like far too many sleeps before Christmas.
In theaters, the film’s target audience of under 10s may squirm and ask for bathroom breaks but they probably won’t complain. This should pocket about roughly the same amount of gold coins in distributor Entertainment One’s stocking as its predecessors, Nativity! (2009) and Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (2012), which banked $8m and $12m respectively on their home turf, cannily tapping an audience hunger for something to watch other than the usual imported American cartoons. Inevitably, Nativity 3 is destined to end up in rotation on British TV schedules at Yuletide, where it will pipe out cheerful background noise while parents struggle to assemble the new toys and kids play with the completed presents, lifting their heads occasionally to watch the dance scenes or laugh at the donkey poo jokes. (Thankfully there are only three of those.)
By this point, Isitt and her cohorts, co-composer/editor Nicky Ager and producer Nick Jones, have a tried and tested formula, and they pretty much stick with it here, even if the format has edged more towards traditional musical comedy, with characters expressing themselves in spontaneous outbursts of song now whereas before the melodic moments were embedded in a straight realist narrative.
The jumping off point is again Coventry-based elementary school St Bernadette’s, where infinitely annoying man-child Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton) has ensconced himself as a classroom assistant no one seems capable of sacking despite his manifest lack of qualifications or any sense of responsibility. He’s still a foil to rival school Oakmoor’s headmaster Gordon Shakespeare (franchise-MVP Jason Watkins) a hyper-competitive snob. A fair few kids from the earlier films are also back, although it’s a shame the plot this time focuses less on them and more on the adult characters.
Otherwise, like a TV show that creates guest starring roles for visiting names, this latest episode has some new faces. The headteacher’s post has been taken over by Mrs. Keen (Celia Imrie, a joy as ever), who’s all a-flutter about an impending surprise inspection from the government’s educational oversight body, Ofsted. To get the school into shape, she’s hired a new “super-teacher”. Cue the entrance of new player Martin Clunes as Mr. Shepherd, taking over the co-lead role from Nativity’s Martin Freeman and Natvity 2’s David Tennant. (Oddly, neither of their characters has ever been heard from again, but perhaps this is meant to mimic the lamentable burn-out rate of elementary-school teachers in the real world.
Shepherd comes accompanied by his adorable six-year-old daughter Lauren (Lauren Hobbs, a total natural), but on his first day at the school he’s kicked in the head by the school mascot Archie, the very donkey of the title. As a consequence, Shepherd awakes with near-total amnesia, unable to remember who he is, who Lauren is, or the fact that he’s supposed to be getting married soon in New York to fiancée Sophie (Catherine Tate). Even more tragically, he’s forgotten the meaning of Christmas, and so Poppy, Lauren and the children set about schooling him in the basic Crimble concepts, which prompts some of the better comic moments, especially when Shepherd gets confused in a very childlike way about the difference between Baby Jesus, God and Santa Claus and has a run in with some aggressive elves. Another inspired gag, one that possibly only the parents of British school children will get, is the way all the adults use the phonic alphabet to spell their names.
All that would have been enough for one brisk, accessible 75-minute film, but Isitt isn’t content to stop there. A surfeit of subplots are afoot, involving a flash-mob competition that sets St. Bernadette’s once more up against Oakmoor, Shepherd and Sophie’s endangered nuptials which are complicated by interference from Sophie’s ex Bradley Finch (Adam Garcia) who happens to be a flash-mob guru, and, oh yeah, that missing donkey. He (spoiler alert) finally resurfaces for the climactic scene atop of the Empire State Building, just in time for some CGI-assisted twerking. Yes, yes, we know, this is supposed to be a kids’ film but, dude, where was that donkey? And how did it get round the equine quarantine laws so fast? Did it take the elevator to the 86th floor? And why wasn’t everyone more worried about its welfare earlier? Literal-minded children, and maybe some grown-ups, will have sleepless nights fretting over these issues.
That donkey – absurd, gratuitous, shamelessly deployed to milk the sentiment – is a metonym for everything that’s simultaneously endearing and shoddy about Nativity 3. Like the Christmas season itself, which now starts well before Halloween arrives, the film fills you full of hope, goes on forever, has some pretty sparkly bits, but is ultimately a bit disappointing, even if, once again, Isitt and Ager’s original tunes are as infectious as a flu virus.
Production companies: An Entertainment One presentation of a Mirrorball Films production
Cast:Martin Clunes, Marc Wootton, Catherine Tate, Jason Watkins, Celia Imrie, Adam Garcia, Susie Blake
Director/screenwriter: Debbie Isitt
Producer: Nick Jones
Executive producers: Alex Hamilton
Director of photography: Sean Van Hales
Production designer: Tim Stevenson
Costume designer: Andrew Cox
Editor: Nicky Ager
Music: Nicky Ager, Debbie Isitt
Casting: Colin Jones
No US rating, 110 minutes
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