'The Star': Film Review

Not exactly the greatest story ever told.

Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Keegan-Michael Key and Oprah Winfrey lend their voices to an animated telling of the Nativity.

More sitcom than sermon, The Star revisits the story of the first Christmas from the perspective of the nonhuman critters, with quality time for Mary and Joseph. The very young Sunday-school set and their grownups will flock to the holiday offering, which combines spirited voice work and a soundtrack by Christian and secular pop acts in a mildly irreverent, suitably non-flashy package that's more serviceable than inspired.

It's up for debate whether processing a Bible story through movie formula reduces or expands its appeal, but as directed by Timothy Reckart from a screenplay by Carlos Kotkin (Rio 2), the adaptation emphasizes the humanist-mystical rather than the explicitly religious, delivering a Christian story in a way that's generic enough to entertain beyond the choir. It isn't likely to convert unbelievers, though — those who question whether the three-act story structure is life's all-encompassing answer.

The contemporary spin on the ancient events occasionally packs a nicely understated comic zing, as in the scene-setting title at the movie's opening: "Nazareth, 9 Months B.C." But the rom-com slant on the wedding day of Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) is just awkward. After overcoming her nerves, she delivers the Big News about the Son of God they'll soon be raising. "This is just so much to take in right now," Joseph says, like your average angsty but sensitive millennial guy (this is not Joseph the elderly widower of tradition).

The action-adventure is set in motion by the appearance of a new star in the sky and, on ground level, by King Herod (Christopher Plummer) and, even closer to the ground, by a mouse (Kristin Chenoweth) who witnesses the Annunciation and can't contain her excitement — and who provides an energetic way into the story. Not happy to hear that a new king is about to be born, Herod orders a couple of attack dogs (snarlingly voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to track down the Bethlehem-bound expectant couple.

The comedy duo at the center of this Road to Bethlehem are a young donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun) and a hammy dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key). Having escaped a life of drudgery in a grain mill, with a key assist from his world-weary yoke-mate (a brief but flavorful turn by Kris Kristofferson), Bo has his starry eyes set on the pomp and circumstance of the royal caravan. But a pivotal encounter with Mary forges a bond that supersedes his showbiz dreams and, with the crucial help of a sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant), who's broken away from the herd to follow the star, he sets out to save her from the canine villains.

In keeping with the story's animal-centric approach, the camels of the Three Magi get a plot strand, mostly a matter of gentle comic relief — the key joke being that the camel voiced by Oprah Winfrey is exceptionally wise and prescient, her spot-on pronouncements met with dismissive laughter by her fellow dromedaries (Tyler Perry and Tracy Morgan). Another trio of animals — a horse (Kelly Clarkson), a jumpy, walleyed goat (Anthony Anderson) and a cow (Patricia Heaton) — will set the stage for the Nativity in their stable; in a nice detail, they haven't been able to sleep since the star appeared above their stable like a 24-hour spotlight.

At the helm of his first feature, Reckart, who was lead animator on the essential Anomalisa, approaches this decidedly different material with a similar focus on character over setting, though most of the characters could have been better defined. In comparison with the frenetic action and busy backdrops of many kid-oriented animated movies, the visual scheme of The Star is stripped down. It's also often lacking in oomph, though there are a couple of lovely images wrapped in the cartoon version of magic hour, and the light and textures of the desert towns and cliffs are effective.

While the movie never soars or burns especially bright, it delivers a modicum of magic without getting pious or gushy — from the chorus of whoas that greets the appearance of the star to the simplicity of the manger scene, where a couple of reformed sinners are welcomed in, with true forgiveness.

Production companies: Affirm Films and Sony Pictures Animation present in association with Walden Media and the Jim Henson Company a Franklin Entertainment production
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Steven Yeun, Keegan-Michael Key, Aidy Bryant, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Christopher Plummer, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan
Director: Timothy Reckart
Screenwriter: Carlos Kotkin; story by Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin
Producer: Jennifer Magee-Cook
Executive producers: DeVon Franklin, Brian Henson, Lisa Henson
Production designer: Craig Elliott
Editor: Pamela Ziegenhagen-Shefland
Composer: John Paesano
Character designers: David Colman, Patrick Mate
Casting director: Tamara Hunter

Rated PG, 85 minutes