The exclamation point that went AWOL from the second installment of Debbie Isitt’s “Nativity!” franchise returns in grammatically dubious fashion for the brazenly titled “Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?!” It’s the accompanying question mark, however, that seems the more appropriate response to this labored, nonsensical effort, which jingles up further ho-ho-hoary hijinks for the strident young students of St. Bernadette’s elementary school, this time with a patience-testing Big Apple finish. Like its predecessors, the pic should do brisk biz with undemanding tykes and parents who don’t mind their frankincense laced with farting — though even fans of the series are likely to deem this dopey “Donkey” a step down, with a surprising streak of unseasonal mean-spiritedness.
While auds have remained loyal, Isitt’s series has trouble holding on to its leads: Like Martin Freeman before him, “Nativity 2” headliner David Tennant evidently decided one trip to the manger was quite enough. Filling his shoes (and his teaching position at the Coventry state school that continues to be the series’ narrative base) is sitcom veteran Martin Clunes, joined by Celia Imrie as a new, no-nonsense but peculiarly dim-witted principal. Though both are good enough sports, the absence of Freeman or Tennant’s naturally sympathetic star quality is sorely felt.
No wonder St. Bernadette’s keeps losing staff at a rate of knots: Not only must they control a gaggle of unruly tots liable to break into saccharine song at the drop of a Santa hat, but they also have the pupils’ beloved, perma-zany teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton) to contend with. Now the series’ anchoring character, Poppy remains an exhaustingly manic man-child figure, beset with learning disabilities that the film is reluctant to identify — disappointingly so, given the constructive social message that could be attached to such an admission.
Via a Christmas-wish letter penned by his young daughter Lauren (Lauren Hobbs), the film’s opening reel somewhat oddly reveals the backstory of educator Mr. Shepherd (Clunes) in a fashion that resembles a “previously on … ” montage from episodic television. (Uninformed viewers could be forgiven for assuming he is a returning protagonist.) An uptight widower, Shepherd arrives at the school shortly before he is due to jet off to New York for a Christmas Eve wedding to Sophie (Catherine Tate). A series of classroom mishaps, however, results in an amnesia-inducing kick to the cranium that wipes all memory of his family, fiancee and — most tragically, on the film’s priority scale — Christmas itself.
With doctors unforthcoming, it’s Poppy who devises the obvious solution to this unhappy turn of events: Entering Shepherd and the children in a festive flash-mob dance competition for which the first prize is, of course, a trip to New York. Presiding over the event, coincidentally enough, is Sophie’s torch-carrying ex Bradley (Adam Garcia), apparently an estimable romantic foil despite his budget-Liberace wardrobe; the contest, meanwhile, pits the pupils of St. Bernadette’s against their recurring nemesis, flouncy private school teacher Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), and his upper-class brood.
Ostensibly a rehash of the choir contest that drove the previous film’s narrative, the flash-mob conceit is a problematic one — and not just because the trend in question feels a year or two past its sell-by date. Given that flash mobbing is by definition a spontaneous form of performance, the notion of an organized contest makes little sense. Meanwhile, the showdown between the two schools reveals an uncomfortable strain of class prejudice in Isitt’s otherwise innocuous script — with a moral outcome that effectively states, “If at first you don’t succeed, steal from those who do.” The children’s next teacher has an awful lot of re-education to do.
At least it looks cheery enough, with Sean Van Hales’ bright, televisual lensing making fluorescent fuchsia as integral a part of the holiday palette as fir green and poinsettia red. Isitt once more wrote the film’s original songs in collaboration with partner Nicky Ager, and it’s a chipper set, borrowing occasional hooks from such existing pop hits as the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and, more detectably to the target audience, One Direction’s “Best Song Ever.” Also the film’s editor, Ager performs less well on that front, with several false climaxes and overextended set pieces making for a lengthy 109 minutes.
Adult thesps are mostly in get-the-job-done mode, while the film seems less interested than its predecessors in its child ensemble — only Hobbs’ duties extend beyond chorus-line work. At least she gets more to do than the film’s other women. Imrie is left to rattle about the increasingly empty schoolhouse, somehow oblivious to the fact that half her students and staff have vanished for days on end. Worse still, Tate, one of Britain’s most vivacious and popular comediennes, is chiefly required to dully hector her fiance over the phone — the casting equivalent of erecting an illuminated Christmas tree in a broom closet.