by Joe Hammerschmidt
Sony’s well-weathered feature animation unit simply cannot catch a break with careful-eyed critics. While The Emoji Movie did proceed to make a tidy profit sum, nothing could justify its existence as among the worst films of 2017, and likely the least flattering animated feature this decade. I suppose it should come as no surprise their immediate follow-up is leaner, cheaper, and needlessly beefed up with filler to appear mainstream-friendly. The Star, a new faith-friendly toon geared towards, I’ll guess, 2nd/3rd graders, covers the basic rundown of the Nativity Story, with a few artistic liberties taken to keep the kiddies engaged, by focusing the efforts on the animals who just happened to be in observance of the event. This mixture of religious morays with medium-budget Hollywood studio interjection will please the young’uns, and church-going families will find plenty of lessons to mine. Average moviegoers, like myself, will likely say “meh.” Not that it’s a terrible film, nor good nor bad, it’s just average if not a trifle tedious to get through. Even at 86 minutes, without your kids watching with you, it can be a bit of a slog to conquer.
While staying true to the Nativity, the birth of baby Jesus, and the relationship strife between homemaker Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and carpenter Joseph (Zachary Levi), The Star veers completely off that path to focus on the animals who just happened to be in the area at the moment of the birth, each going on their own separate trip. The action stays on donkey Bo (Steven Yeun of Walking Dead fame), accompanied by a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key), on their quest to, in Bo’s words, ‘do something of great importance’; in his eyes, it’s to parade in a festive carnival. Stuck in Nazareth working for an inconsiderate mill grainer, his journey starts with a few generic cartoon gags and one of a million (it seems) chase scenes, to lead the pair into the attention of Mary, the human vessel chosen by God to carry his newborn son after a standard nine-month term. The remaining hour (or less) is the collective journey of the stable of characters traveling to Bethlehem for what they otherwise consider a standard baby shower. You have your three camels bearing the traditional gifts; Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Tracy Morgan provide their voices with mixed results, but it’s Lady O who’s the scene-stealer as the mama camel with many a prophetic line that is considerably hard to believe in the moment, yet now seems like hard fact. Her delivery of those lines sells that moment.
Our leftover cast lacks either sufficient screen time or a meaningful purpose within the plot. It may be too apparent the A- cast brought in were in it as a charitable effort; this film doesn’t deserve the likes of Christopher Plummer as the jealous Bethlehemian king who barely has a say in his being dethroned, or Kristen Chenoweth as a chipper gossipy field mouse, or the unrecognizable pair of Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias voicing the devil dog assistants to a king’s lackey hot on the procession’s trail. Aidy Bryant appearing as a confident lamb made for a few crack-up moments where it was naturally impossible to not laugh, however; she gets a fair pass. All these b-side plots converge as they see fit in the story, making for a soul-satisfying epilogue, but in their passing moments, it’s tough to find the sense around them, they all simply come and go.
On the animation side, for $18 million, it looks decent but not breathtaking; it’s yet another just above straight-to-video status feature, with regards to its look. Director Tim Reckart, in his feature debut, is certainly comfortable enough working with less to build more, following his first known project, the acclaimed stop-motion short Head Over Heels. He succeeds, on the condition he shouldn’t expect so much of the final product, much like we the audience shouldn’t expect an award-winning effort. Star is shortlisted on the Oscar list for 2017, but that’s as far as it’s getting.
The film itself can only run so far before it falls victim to your standard religious animated cuddly animal film formula. Telling the Nativity well is never easy, and The Star knows it wants to try, but it winds up muddling its way from subplot to subplot, each one more needless than the last. Through its serviceable approach to the tale, allowing the animals to drive the story, it’s certainly a fresh take, but by execution, nothing we haven’t seen before. Until one realizes how hard it’s trying to look original, it’s otherwise a fun romp that’ll see a decent audience. Otherwise, I’d wait for a rental, provided it doesn’t take until next Christmas season for that to happen, and wait a week to treat the kids to Coco. (C+)
The Star is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for some thematic elements; 86 minutes.