Every culture and era remakes Christianity in its own image, so it’s no surprise that Timothy Reckart’s The Star, an animated retelling of the Nativity from the perspective of a bunch of cuddly animals, treats the coming of the messiah less as a humbling parable of God’s mercy and mankind’s salvation than a heart-warming adventure tale with plug-and-play lessons about friendship and self-empowerment. Despite its biblically based subject matter and light sprinkling of overtly religious messaging—most of it delivered by Oprah Winfrey as a wise old camel named Deborah—The Star’s characters, themes, narrative, and visuals are practically indistinguishable from those of any number of other contemporary animated kids’ flicks.
Essentially a Disneyfied version of the folk song “The Friendly Beasts,” in which the manger animals relate the good deeds they performed to assist in Jesus Christ’s birth, the film focuses on Bo (Steven Yeun), a scrappy little donkey who’s taken in by Mary (Gina Rodriguez) after escaping from the gristmill where his owner kept him chained up night and day. Though he dreams of a life of fun and adventure with his pal Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key), Bo finds himself strangely attached to Mary. When he discovers that the evil King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is hunting for her, he teams up with Dave and a ragtag group of animals to protect Mary and her unborn child from Herod’s vicious hench-dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias).
The film makes some effort to maintain a sense of historical verisimilitude in its depiction of ancient Judea. In contrast to lily-white portrayals of the couple in biblical epics like King of Kings, Mary and Joseph are here represented as distinctly brown-skinned. Reckart also thankfully avoids the temptation to drop some gentle snowfall into the film’s peaceful manger scene. In the film’s most unusual and interesting scene, Mary reveals her divine pregnancy to Joseph (Zachary Levi) with some of the awkwardness and discomfort such a disclosure would no doubt provoke, and while he doesn’t decide to seek a divorce as he does in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph does genuinely grapple with the daunting responsibilities that this news places on him.
For the most part, though, The Star sidelines Mary and Joseph’s story in favor of Bo’s generic action-comedy quest. Filled with cookie-cutter slapstick set pieces and child-pandering gags focused on butts, the film is distinguished only by its banal meekness. Lame one-liners about frankincense and funny Bible names would be unlikely to generate anything more than polite laughter in a Sunday school lecture, and here they land with a thud. Meanwhile, supporting characters like the hyperactive Dave and a relentlessly positive sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant) are generic comic-relief types that could have been lifted out of Trolls or Smurfs: The Lost Village and given a quick redesign. Only Tracy Morgan’s off-kilter line readings as a doofusy camel offer any hint of freshness amid the film’s stale, secondhand action comedy. In its attempt to rework the Nativity for a contemporary family audience, The Star turns the greatest story ever told into just another kids’ movie.