A collection of animals follow ‘The Star’ as a map in their quest to get to Bethlehem before it’s too late. In Sony Pictures Animation’s newest feature film, a small but brave donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun) yearns for a life beyond his daily grind of repetition at the village mill. One day he finds the courage to break free, and finally goes on the adventure of his dreams. On his journey, he teams up with Ruth (Aidy Bryant), a lovable sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave (Keegan Michael-Key), a dove with lofty aspirations. Along with three wisecracking camels and some eccentric stable animals with electric personalities, Bo and his new friends follow the Star and become unlikely heroes in the greatest story ever told; the first Christmas. ‘The Star’ is directed by Timothy Reckart, and is rated PG for some thematic elements.
Releasing a story about the birth of Jesus around the holiday season seemed like a good idea in theory, but the dulled down execution of ‘The Star’ hints that your time would be much better served doing literally anything else than this. The film isn’t truly awful, just awfully boring, and a great lack of detail paralyzes this one from ever breaking free from the pack of religious films that bring out the groaning in all of us. Thankfully, this one at least isn’t insulting or shaming the non-believing crowds for their respective beliefs, choosing instead to focus loosely on the greatest origin story of all time in Jesus Christ. From a theatrical perspective, this one lacks any clear defining trait in releasing this on the silver screen. From its minimal run time (78 Minutes), to its narrow screenplay or jarringly disappointing animated stylings, Reckart’s honorable tale falls along the way of this aridly dry journey in giving us anything memorably pleasing about the investment made towards wanting to see an original version of the classic telling.
The screenplay is so dry and free of laughs in its material that I found myself fighting off sleep throughout. In fact, my experience with ‘The Star’ makes me feel like the film had some good ideas for the night of the immaculate birth, and then decided to fill in the rest around it as they went along. I say this because the third act of the film is by far the most exciting and the most urgent in terms of my investment as a whole with the movie. It’s nothing amazing by any stretch of original storytelling, but when you consider how mind-numbingly dull the first hour of this movie truly is, you can appreciate a finale that throws as much at the screen as it can to getting audiences back into this thing. The humor inside of this script feels virtually non-existent. That’s not to just say that it is bad in delivery, but that it feels like it is never there to begin with. Considering this is basically a kids-first dominated audience, I feel like screenwriters Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin cater more to the side of bible enthusiasts instead of the ones that will pile into the theater in droves to see an up-roaring good time. Evidence of this exists throughout the first two acts that feel like you’re being subjected to a Sunday School Hallmark offering that is posing as a Hollywood film in sheep’s clothing. I could forgive Sony Animated Studios if this was the first or second time that I have been annoyed with them, but the sour taste of ‘Nine Lives’ from 2015 still lasts to remind me of the horrors that I’ve been through with this company.
Sony’s brand of animation continues to get better in certain aspects, but still struggles in artist rendering that has it falling by the wayside of Dreamworks or Pixar for top dog. The background illustrations are beautiful here, establishing a patented desire for even the most minute detail in landscapes and buildings that sets a lively stage for our characters. The sky and clouds as well breathe a strong artistic stroke that tiptoes the fourth wall of live action rendering. Where my problem lies is still with the character depictions, especially during the day time scenes that highlight their lumbering movements and facial definitions accordingly. The mouth movements of characters are still trailing behind where they rightfully should be with their appropriate speech patterns, and there’s a great lack of life or energy behind the walking and reaching of both human and animal properties. As to where Pixar gets the little things like facial acne or wrinkles to strong detail in their films, Sony Animation is still leagues behind in this regard, giving their characters the most basic of approaches to what make them standout amongst one another.
My distaste doesn’t just end with the visuals however, it also rang persistent with the collective musical soundtrack by a collection of popular artists like Mariah Carey and Jake Owen. I should first say that the musical score by composer John Paesano is nowhere at fault here, as his accompaniment of orchestral influence gave the film the big feeling that I felt it was sadly missing for the rest of the tonal atmosphere. But with the soundtrack, I feel like this is another example of popstars trying to hip up these classic religious songs with a dose of modern swagger to appeal to a broader audience. Anytime this happens in films, I can’t help but taste the feeling of desperation that sacrifices the pitch and feeling of the story at heart. This kind of thing is nice for a kids movie, but a story about Jesus probably doesn’t require a hip hop influence to its scenes and sequences for the sheer fact that this style of music was thousands of years away. I compare it to hearing hip hop during the 2012 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’. It’s jarring to the point of ruined immersion into the film, and does nothing but play as a distraction on the whole piece.
This wide range of cast are also quite a feat to see under the same roof, even if a majority of their deliveries lack the kind of energy needed in reaching the youthful audience. With the exception of Keegan Michael-Key as Dave the sidekick dove and best friend of Bo, not one of these actors get lost in their vocal versatilities, and choose instead to play everything at face value. What makes Keegan work so well in this role besides his animated vocal tones, is that he truly samples a pitch that sounds completely different from his familiar patterns. Michael-Key’s endless energy goes a long way anytime he’s on screen, and I couldn’t thank Dave enough for waking me from a coma each time he wasn’t present. Besides him, Aidy Bryant isn’t terrible as Ruth, but her character’s one-dimension purpose limits her abilities in breaking out of the Saturday Night Live diamond that she finds herself in. Steven Yeun was very disappointing, sounding off Bo as a protagonist who is simply collecting a paycheck. Whether it’s poor writing or poor dissertation, Yeun’s turn as the lead of this film can’t quite get a grasp of what is needed from the material, and because of such, Bo makes for arguably the worst of animal leads in a year that has John Cena voicing a four hundred pound bull.
THE VERDICT – Few things shine bright with ‘The Star’, but those that do are doing so because of the limited spectrum being displayed by uneven animation, as well as a boring story that alienates quickly. Already with ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ and ‘A Bad Mom’s Christmas’, this has been a holiday movie season to forget, but Timothy Reckart’s animated telling gives us one final blunt blow with a nativity story that incorporates butt jokes and slapstick humor to its senseless direction. If this truly is the greatest story ever told, I’ll opt for fiction.