It’s a cute idea, making an animated film about the animals of the Nativity—Mary and Joseph’s donkey, the wise men’s camels, the shepherds’ sheep, and so on. Never mind that most of these are later inventions; the texts of the gospels and the Old Testament teem with animals and animal metaphors (not to mention all those roots and fruits), lyrically twisting their stories of God and mankind, destruction and redemption into the imagery of natural world. But even the kid-friendliest, Sunday-school-iest kind of religious art can’t spring from religion alone; it needs artistry, too. Otherwise, you end up with a generic product aimed at a market segment who’ll buy anything as long as it seems sufficiently churchy.
In other words, something like The Star, a rote cartoon feature from the evangelical-targeted Sony division Affirm Films (Moms’ Night Out, War Room) that never overcomes the impression that it exists only because it’s guaranteed to make a certain sum of money. We follow Bo (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a lowly donkey who spends his days turning a mill wheel in Nazareth, but dreams of running off to join something called “the Royal Caravan” with his best friend Dave (Keegan-Michael Key), a dove. (Actually, the visual metaphor of the donkey mill—our hoofed hero literally going in circles—is a good one, but neither the script nor the animation are sophisticated enough to have much use for it.)
Eventually, Bo escapes and ends up at the home of the carpenter Joseph (Zachary Levi) and his pregnant wife, Mary (Gina Rodriguez). From there, it’s on to Bethlehem, where Mary will give birth to the Son Of God in a manger after being refused from every inn, and will then be visited by shepherds and by wise men who bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Like most depictions of the birth of Christ, The Star takes a “greatest hits medley” approach to the gospels; the shepherds and the manger are from Luke, the magi are from Matthew.) It’s a story that no one who’s going to buy a ticket to The Star doesn’t already know. And even with occasional cuts to the aforementioned camels (Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan) and appearances from various angelic messengers of the Lord, it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to tell.
Filling it out to feature length thus takes considerable padding: subplots, villains, songs, boilerplate donkey life lessons, and more celebrity voice actors. There’s Christopher Plummer as Herod The Great; Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias as a couple of mean dogs; Kristin Chenoweth as a jerboa; Kelly Clarkson as a horse; Kris Kristofferson as an older, gruffer donkey; Mariah Carey as a chicken. None of these characters contribute anything to the film, not even visually; the digital animation is cheap and simplistic. The director, Tim Reckart, is better known for his puppet-based stop-motion (he worked on Anomalisa and was Oscar-nominated for a short film) and seems to be out of his element here.
The problem is that the Nativity isn’t really meant to be dramatic. It’s a succession of images, the subject of centuries’ worth of paintings; it was in fact the artists who shaped how the story is popularly told today, as they were the first to interpolate the majestic imagery of Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus—the wise men, King Herod, the guiding star—into the humbler origins described in Luke. Lose that combination of the modest and the awe-inspiring, and you might as well be reciting the alphabet.