The Star – Film Review by David Minogue
Directed by Timothy Reckart
Written by Carlos Kotkin
Stars: Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriquez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Kelly Clarkson, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Aidy Bryant, Christopher Plummer, Patricia Heaton
The story of the Nativity or the first Christmas is one that has been told through the medium of cinema and television many times over the years. In Timothy Reckart’s first feature length computer animated film it is told primarily through the point of view of a variety of animal characters. Reckart was previously nominated for an Academy award for Best Animated Short Film in 2013 for his ten minute short Head Over Heels. It was made using stop motion clay characters and was both endearing and quirky in its depiction of the lives of a separated married couple. In ‘The Star’ Reckart worked with a variety of production companies but primarily with Sony Pictures Animation and Walden Media. In this film Reckart has assembled an impressive and diverse group of actors to voice the many characters. In several interviews for the promotion and publicity for this film Reckart has emphasized that he ‘doesn’t consider it a faith based film’ but instead ‘it is a character and story based one’. However, as the film also features the human characters of Mary and Joseph and of course the baby Jesus the true moral message of Christmas is definitely its main focus.
In The Star a donkey (Steven Yeun) who is later given the name Bo by Mary dreams of breaking free of the repetition of his daily life working in a mill with his father (Kris Kristofferson). He hopes to someday be a part of the Royal caravan. With the aid of his friend Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key) he escapes but is pursued by the mill owner. He meets Mary (Gina Rodriquez) and her husband Joseph (Zachary Levi). Mary is pregnant with Jesus and she and Joseph begin their journey to Bethlehem following the guiding star in the sky. All of the parts of the nativity story are present and in making the film Reckart has said he was determined to reference each part of the story according to scripture. This also means that various other people and places that feature in the Bible such as Zachariah and Elizabeth and their baby who will grow up to be John the Baptist make cameo appearances. They are introduced in the story at Mary and Joseph’s wedding feast which is presented more like a garden party in a contemporary television comedy show. Carlos Kostin’s screenplay in order to keep the telling of a story a comedy has the characters speak in the kind of language that so called cool parents think their children speak in. The effect is just strange. While Bo and Dave are the main characters that accompany Mary and Joseph on their journey they are also joined by a sheep called Ruth (Aidy Bryant). In Bethlehem they later meet other animals including the three wise men’s camels; Cyrus (Tyler Perry), Deborah (Oprah Winfrey) and Felix (Tracy Morgan). Christopher Plummer features briefly as the voice of King Herod. He sends a video game type henchman and his two mean dogs Thaddeus (Ving Rhames) and Rufus (Gabriel Iglesias) to find Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus. There is a great array of voice actors in this film with Keegan-Michael Key as Dave afforded the most genuinely funny dialogue. It is not always obvious which famous star is voicing a character but Tracy Morgan basically plays a 30 Rock type character and Kelly Clarkson as Leah the horse gets to sing a few high notes to represent her main career.
The computer animation is beautiful throughout but the hand drawn animated style of the end credits and the film’s story boards suggest that an old style of classic animation may have been more interesting. As would have been the stop motion technique that Reckart used in his short film which is completely absent. The last big budget animated feature film that used a biblical reference in its narrative was The Prince of Egypt in 1998. That film featured the hit duet When You Believe by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Mariah features as a minor voice character and also sings The Star on the soundtrack. The film also features new and old Christmas religious songs from contemporary pop and Christian music artists including Pentatonix, Fifth Harmony, Zara Larsson and Kirk Franklin. They are all the type of songs that music artists such as these sing on their own individual Christmas albums. They are only used for a minute or two on screen but they would have also worked well within the structure of a musical film.
It is most likely that younger children will focus mainly on the film’s many animal characters however the director and producers know that they have a specific target faith based audience in the United States and worldwide. The Star absolutely has a moral message and that is to bring Jesus back into the original meaning of Christmas again through commercial animated cinema. That clear message also significantly features at the very end of the film’s credits.