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Courtesy of Sony Entertainment

November 19, 2017

How Does The Star Present Christmas?

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When I heard that Sony Animation, the same studio that brought us The Emoji Movie, was going to be attempting a Biblical story, I prepared for the worst. I feared that it would only give us relentless pandering and cringe-worthy gags. I mean, the teaser has a bird shaking his butt at a couple of dogs, so I feel like I was justified in bracing myself. Finally The Star has hit theaters, and I find myself, thankfully, relieved. While it has several flaws, The Star manages to deliver its own take on the Nativity that feels sincere and has its own unique edges.

The Star is directed by Timothy Reckart, and written by Carlos Kotkin and Simon Moore. It opens with the Annunciation of Mary (Gina Rodriguez), where she is informed that she will bear the Messiah, the Son of God. This is overheard by a field mouse who rushes off to tell everyone the good news. We then meet a donkey called Bo, played by Steven Yeun. He’s fed up with being a mill donkey, so he and his friend Dave, a dove voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, plan to escape and join the royal caravan. Once they do they run into Mary and Joseph (Zachary Levi), and end up inadvertently sucked into the Nativity narrative.

Now normally, I break down my reviews into a “positives” section, followed by a “negatives” section. With The Star though, it’s a little difficult to do that because every strength is dulled by a shortcoming, and most flaws are tempered by a silver lining. Starting with the characters, we have an exceptionally mixed bag. The biggest problem here is the sheer VOLUME of characters. The central conflict revolves around Bo and Dave helping Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem, while avoiding a brutish soldier with two dogs dispatched by Herod. Right there, you have a clean and concise plot. But that’s not enough for The Star. We need to also involve the camels of the three wise kings, and a sheep who talks about the importance of having a flock, and three wacky stable animals. The result is an overwhelming number of characters!

How about our main characters though? Well, Bo is a likable enough protagonist, and follows a simple plot arc where he ends up turning down the royal caravan in order to help Mary. Predictable, yes, but effective enough for kids. Dave the dove can get a little grating at times, but ultimately pulls through in the end. Mary is presented well, with all the tenderness I would think befitting her. Joseph is a little more mixed. In The Star, Joseph undergoes his own personal conflict: he feels that he’s unworthy to raise the Son of God. Now that’s a concept that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, and is worth really delving into. But we don’t have time for that, because Joseph has some wacky slapstick hijinks to get into!

That’s the biggest problem in The Star, an over-reliance on humor that makes the movie feel less sincere. Any time something dramatic or frightening happens, the film insists on immediate goofiness and cartoony sound effects. It’s like The Star wants to be bold, but every time it is, the movie immediately says “Never mind, we want to be a kids’ movie.” It’s a similar situation to Thor: Ragnarok, where dramatic themes got undercut by an overuse of humor. Of course, a comic book movie can get away with it more easily, while The Star is about a Biblical story that’s a cornerstone of faith for billions of people globally.

It’s a shame because there are some genuinely good moments within The Star. For example, in the climax the evil brutish soldier is dangling off a cliff, weighed down by his two hunting dogs, who are also developed characters. Bo offers to help him, but the soldier refuses. Instead, he decides to drop his dead weight… that being, the two dogs. It’s executed really well, and left me chilled in a PG movie. Sadly, such a brilliant scene has to rub shoulders with dialogue like “Nazareth can kiss my gleaming white tail feathers goodbye!”

Moving on to the animation, I have to say it actually looks good, considering a $17 million budget. Cinesite Animation did the visual work on this movie, and they honestly did pretty well. One note I have to make though, a huge mark of praise, is in the character design of Mary and Joseph specifically. The Star’s Mary and Joseph look like they do actually live in the Middle East, and I just have to remark that I’m thankful for that accuracy there.

I went into the theater bracing for the worst, and thankfully I did not get the worst. The Star does suffer from a severe tonal mismatch, and I wish it had taken itself a little more seriously. That said, I still found different elements that I did enjoy. I went to a screening full of children, and there were plenty of laughs that I heard around the theater. There was even a joke or two that I enjoyed. All in all, it’s a decent movie, but with more focus it could have been great.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu.