• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Sunday, November 26, 2017

    The Star (2017)


    One of the things that neither Bible film fans, nor the people who write about them like to admit, is that, more often than not, they are a form of entertainment. We should all know this of course; anyone who has seen 80 year-old stutterer Moses portrayed by a young Charlton Heston fresh from the gym is kidding themselves if they think otherwise. We excuse all kinds of unlikely dialogue on the grounds of artistic license and accept many of the lines publicists feed us about films raising difficult questions or exploring issues. It's not that Bible films cannot both do those things and be entertaining, but that often those of us who take them seriously forget that, for many, they are just about entertainment.

    Sony Animated Pictures' Christmas release, The Star, seems content simply to aim for entertainment. No-one would watch it's take on the Nativity story and think that this was how things really happened. The dramatic license makes no serious attempt to convince you that it has any kind of link to how historical reality. Instead it just aims for a fun, whilst not disrespectful, retelling of the story of Jesus' birth through the eyes of it's real main character, a donkey called Bo. Bo and his best friend Dave (a dove) end up getting adopted by Mary and Joseph in the weeks leading up to their trip to Bethlehem and unbeknownst to the holy couple bring with them a series of hazards which they somehow manage to, just about, keep at bay.

    As family entertainment it's not bad. The pacing is sprightly enough to stop boredom setting in, the characters are generally appealing without feeling overly cutesy (Ruth the sheep and Felix the camel aside) and there are a few funny lines here and there. Whilst none of it is as amusing as the opening sequence in Despicable Me 3, it's at least on a par with the rest of Despicable Me 3.

    The best thing about it, however, is its affectionate take down of both the typical biblical epic and the various ways in which the Christmas story has been told in the past. The opening title sets the tone, but it continues through the banter between Elizabeth and Zechariah ("I think I liked you better when you couldn't talk") and one of the camels' judgement on Herod's golden shoes ("That, Felix, is money and no taste"). Perhaps the best take down of all comes when Bo realizes the stable he has discovered is where Jesus is meant to be born. What really gives it away is that the poor animals that live there have suffered 9 months of bad sleep due to the star shining through a gap in their roof right on to the manger. It's a great spoof of the clichéd climatic shot in The Nativity Story (2006) and the works that inspired it and one of a number of places where the film playfully takes on the ways in which we have interpreted the original story, without trying to undermine its importance.

    The other thing that is interesting about the film is the way it handles Joseph's reaction to the news of Mary's pregnancy. Having watched almost every available Nativity film this year, most of them take an remarkably adult angle on this story, which feels very much part of the post-1960s shift in attitudes to sex. Typically Joseph is angry or hurt, but never seriously considers stoning her to death. His attitudes are very modern in ways that our ancestors, and perhaps our descendants would not recognize. If you've ever watched one of these films with kids, it's hard to explain to them the nuances of what is going on.

    As The Star is very much aimed at children (and younger, primary age children at that) it bravely decides to omit these very grown-up anxieties, save parents an awkward conversation, and focus instead on Joseph's concerns about how he can possibly father such a child. It's not a unique line of thinking - there's a similar line in The Nativity Story, for example, (a film which has clearly been a significant influence on The Star) - but I appreciate the focus this gives on issues that kids can relate to more readily ("Can I handle what is expected of me?"). It took me a while to get used to it, but it does allow us to see past what has become the dominant aspect of how Joseph tends to be viewed.

    Where the film falls down, for me, is where it tries to move beyond being an entertaining celebration of the story of Mary and Joseph, and force out a cheesy lump of exposition. Suddenly it feels like you have been ambushed by a large dose of unwelcome propaganda, like someone 'splaining the film's life lessons when you've already fully grasped it. Seasonal goodwill had previously enabled me to overlook the awful, mega-churchy sounding soundtrack. Now I'm not sure I feel as generous.

    Perhaps, though, I can forgive the film for that because of it's subtler moments. The nods to Lassie that are not wrung out for all they are worth, the Matera-like design of Bethlehem, and, most of all, the decent, honest, but realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph who, in the midst of all the crazy animal antics, somehow retain a sense of poise and dignity. Thankfully The Star never lets you forget that behind all the entertainment, there is an important story that we need to celebrate and continue to share.

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