(Rated: G [Canada] and PG [MPAA] for some thematic elements; directed by Timothy Reckart; stars (voice) 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, Delilah and Joel McCrary; run time: 86 min.)
Surprising family fare from Hollywood
By Ted Giese
“The Star” (2017) is a lighthearted and kind animated family film from Affirm Films, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures. Affirm also produced the recent films “Miracles from Heaven” (2016), “Risen” (2016), “War Room” (2015), “Heaven Is for Real” (2014), “Moms’ Night Out” (2014), “Courageous” (2011), “Soul Surfer” (2011) and this year’s “All Saints” (2017).
Set during the nine months leading up to the birth of Christ, “The Star” tells the story of a young donkey (Steven Yeun) and a little white dove (Keegan-Michael Key) who dream of getting out of Nazareth to join the Royal Caravan.
With the help of the dove, Dave the donkey escapes his monotonous life at the mill and finds himself living under the roof of the newly-married Virgin Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi). In their first meeting, Mary names the little donkey Boaz — Bo, for short.
Bo and Dave’s adventure doesn’t lead them to the Royal Caravan as they’d expected. Instead they end up with the Virgin Mary and Joseph, as the Holy Family travels to Bethlehem for registration in the Roman census just days before Jesus’ birth.
Along the way they are joined by a sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant), who saw a new star in the night sky and left her flock to investigate its great light.
The animals discover that a soldier and his two dogs (Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias) are tracking the pregnant Mary, and that she, Joseph and the child are in danger.
Bo, Dave and Ruth work to help Jesus’ family but are hampered by the fact that people can’t understand them.
Predictably, the soldier sent by King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is foiled, the Son of God is born in Bethlehem, and Bo the donkey learns that he was in the Royal Caravan that matters most — the one that delivered the Messiah to His foretold place of birth.
A respectful tone
The general tone of the film is respectful, especially when dealing with challenging topics such as the Virgin Mary telling Joseph about the visit of the angel and the child she is carrying.
Since the film ends with Jesus’ birth, the writers cleverly provide an action sequence for the animal characters as the birth takes place, so that when the action is resolved, Jesus has arrived and is wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Details that link scriptural events with the celebration of Christmas are likewise done with respect and warmth.
The film is neither subversive nor cynical. Nothing from the scriptural account of Christ’s birth is explained away or downplayed.
The film also knows its audience: Christians, particularly Christian families with young children. That said, any parent with small children — Christian or not — likely will find the film appropriate, as the humor is directed primarily toward kids.
The film’s greatest sin is common: conflating the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Wise Men.
St. Matthew writes in his Gospel, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’ ” (Matt. 2:1–2).
The key word is “after.” Matthew makes it clear that the Wise Men came from the east after Jesus was born, not when Jesus was born, and even notes, “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:11) — note that it was a house, not a stable.
Yet the depiction of the Wise Men at the Nativity is common even among observant Christians, perhaps because the birth of Christ in the western Church’s liturgical calendar begins the 12 days of Christmas and ends with the Wise Men’s visitation on the 12th day — Epiphany.
In addition, Christmas in the western Church hits its high point at the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas. In eastern rite churches, Christmas hits its high point at the end of the 12 days, inviting the portrayal of extra guests at the manger.
Another long-standing, popular discrepancy comes in having three Wise Men in the film. Even Martin Luther commented in a sermon that this assumption is likely based on “the three gifts” given to the Christ Child:
“We may let the simple have it so and it does not matter much, though we are not told in Scripture whether there were two, three [wise men], or how many. We may safely assume that they came from Arabia or Sheba. This may be inferred from the presence of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all of which are to be found in that land. We are not to suppose that they purchased them elsewhere because the custom of the East is to make presents the best fruit of the land. Nor should we assume with the painters that one of the wise men brought gold, another frankincense, and third myrrh, but each brought all.” (From Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Roland H. Bainton, ed.)
“The Star,” like so many congregational Christmas pageants, crams the stable full of animals and Wise Men even though Scripture never mentions them being present at Jesus’ birth. Likewise, when families sit down with their children to read the Bible’s account of the Christmas story, they will search in vain for a donkey carrying the Virgin Mary, heavy with child, up hill and down, from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
In a short disclaimer during the closing credits, the filmmakers admit they have taken some liberties with the scriptural story to include the animal characters.
Read the real story
Before or after watching the film, families would benefit from reading the real Christmas story in the Bible. The sections of Scripture the film specifically draws upon are the account of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38); Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:1–20); and a brief picture of Jesus’ childhood (Luke 1:40), to which the film refers in the final credits.
There is also a reference to Luke 1:5–25 and 39–56 when Elizabeth (Delilah), Zachariah (Joel McCrary) and baby John the Baptizer accompany the Virgin Mary to her wedding and briefly interact with the happy couple following their wedding reception.
The birth of Jesus and the visit of the Wise Men as found in the Gospel of Matthew (1:18–25, 2:1–11) also may be helpful to read.
A positive movie-going experience
Not every film under the Affirm Films banner can be recommended. “The Star,” however, is the sort of movie many Christians will want to see in theaters: a clean family film that doesn’t disrespect their Christian faith and provides a positive movie-going experience for young children.
“The Star” will not likely win awards in Hollywood, but it may win the hearts of parents and children alike who are looking for something better from the movie industry for themselves and their families.
Watch a trailer for “The Star”:
The Rev. Ted Giese (email@example.com) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to the Canadian Lutheran, Reporter Online and KFUO.org; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Nov. 28, 2017