Despite a title as catchy as measles, “Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger” reps a mildly disappointing follow-up to Brit writer-helmer Debbie Isitt’s sleeper hit “Nativity!” Pic has killer moments when featuring hilariously inappropriate yuletide tunes, but this seasonal musical comedy about elementary schoolkids competing in a talent show is broader, messier and less endearing than its predecessor, despite the additions of a donkey and a baby to the cast. Local auds clearly didn’t give a figgy pudding about the pic’s shortcomings, as it earned a hefty £1.6 million ($2.5 million) in its opening weekend.
“Danger in the Manger” reunites many of the first film’s cast members, who once again semi-improvise their dialogue: These include Marc Wootton as classroom assistant Mr. Poppy; the estimable Jason Watkins as rival teacher Gordon Shakespeare; Joanna Page as the headmistress; and some of the most talented tots who helped “Nativity!” cume an unexpected $8.3 million when it bowed in 2009.
However, Martin Freeman, who played the lead role of teacher Paul Maddens, couldn’t attend the party this time around due to commitments filming “The Hobbit.” Consequently, likeable but mugging-prone David Tennant (best known offshore as the Doctor Who incarnation before Matt Smith) steps in to play David Peterson, the new teacher at St. Bernadette’s Primary School, taking over for Maddens’ class after a string of substitute teachers.
The kids themselves, although unruly in a cute way, are less the problem than Mr. Poppy, a an irresponsible man-child and a much more annoying character this time around. Against the wishes of Peterson and the headmistress, who argue they can’t afford the funds needed for the trip, Poppy signs the class up to compete in “A Song for Christmas,” a nationally broadcast choir contest taking place in Wales, where Shakespeare’s class of rich, highly trained private-school students is also competing. For reasons too complicated to explain, Poppy, Peterson and the class end up on the road anyway, with nary a parental permission slip in sight, but with one kid’s infant brother smuggled aboard, affording numerous pee-and-poo jokes that will presumable amuse young auds to no end.
Indeed, the pic seems more skewed toward moppets than toward accompanying adults. Thankfully, things pick up finally when the St. Bernadette posse at last makes it to the competition after an endless schlep around the Welsh mountains, an adventure that, no matter how funny it’s meant to be, will make parents sweaty with anxiety.
Jessica Hynes proves as welcome as ever as a smarmy, insincere thrush-cum-talent-show-presenter, while Ian McNeice adds comic heft as the father of both Peterson and his stuck-up twin brother, Roderick (also Tennant). Songs written by returning helmer Debbie Isitt and her editor, Nicky Ager, amusingly skewer the sentimentality of the holiday season with celebrations of consumerism, silly choreography and sharp satire of phony reality-TV contests.
Although the pacing is poor and tech credits are cheap-looking, Isitt and Co. again coax good perfs out of the young thesps, who look like they’re having a grand time. The film seems to have been made for children, by people who sincerely like children, which no doubt partly accounts for the franchise’s massive popularity — that, and local distrib Entertainment One’s ginormous marketing push.