Though it probably could have gone without saying, “The Star” ends with a politely worded note to the effect that, while having fun and taking artist license, its creators strived to maintain the spirit and values of the greatest story ever told. Sure enough, “The Star” offers a playful retelling of Jesus’ nativity, as seen from the animals’ point of view, while keeping the necessary irreverence that entails to a benign minimum. As kid-friendly Christmas movies go, this one actually goes out of its way to remind what the holiday represents, which should please parents looking for something a little more sophisticated (but just barely) than the VeggieTales cartoons.
In the tradition of Robert Lawson’s appealing young-adult books “Ben and Me” (about founding father Franklin and his “good mouse Amos”) and “Mr. Revere and I” (in which Paul’s horse recounts his master’s famous ride), this CG co-production between Sony Pictures Animation and the Jim Henson Studio anthropomorphizes the various beasts who bore witness to important historical events — most notably Bo the donkey (Steven Yeun), Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key) and a loquacious sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant), although there are also the three wise men’s camels and a handful of other critters.
As it happens, Bo isn’t the only talking donkey the Good Book has to offer (in Numbers, Balaam’s ass also speaks), but apart from the trickster serpent who fools Adam and Eve in Genesis, animals typically don’t speak in the Bible. That means screenwriter Carlos Kotkin (who shares story credit with Simon Moore) must exercise his “artistic license” when trying to imagine what the animals in the manger were thinking on that very first Christmas.
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Turns out, apart from two “bad dogs” (voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias), the other creatures simply want to help, and though they talk an awful lot amongst themselves, whenever there are humans around, their agitated dialogue is amusingly reduced to little more than a series of agitated hee-haws and other barnyard sounds. When the film opens, exactly nine months before Jesus’ birth, lowly Bo has spent his entire life enslaved to a Nazareth miller. As it happens, the donkey’s true ambition is to join the king’s caravan — a dream he indirectly realizes by carrying the very pregnant Mary (Gina Rodriguez) into Bethlehem.
As in the Bible, the appearance of a new star in the heavens heralds the arrival of a new “king,” one whose prophesied arrival deeply threatens local tyrant Herod (Christopher Plummer), who dispatches an over-zealous soldier to hunt down his unborn rival. So begins an awkward kind of road-movie plot, in which Mary and her easily frustrated husband Joseph (Zachary Levi) travel cross-country while totally oblivious to the fact that a bloodthirsty Roman goon is fast on their trail.
Meanwhile, though Bo and his buddies don’t realize just whom they are protecting, they provide a first line of defense against this sword-wielding centurion — to the extent that “The Star” implies that Christianity might never have existed if not for the efforts of these valiant creatures. It’s a charming enough idea, especially for animal-loving kiddos, and one that puts considerably more emphasis on the menagerie that shared the manger with Mary and Joseph that night than virtually any of the classic nativity scenes artists have painted over the centuries (the vast majority of which feature no animals whatsoever).
While not exactly an original concept (in 1977, Rankin/Bass produced a stop-motion TV special called “Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey” with a remarkably similar plot), “The Star” delivers a fresh take on a story that its Christian target audience presumably knows by heart, emphasizing such qualities as faith, friendship and teamwork in the process. At the same time Bo and friends tag along with Mary and Joseph, three wisecracking camels (played by Tyler Perry, Tracy Jordan and Oprah Winfrey) accompany the three wise men, who are perhaps the only humans to have noticed the star — unless you count Mariah Carey, whose theme song is by far the most memorable of the Christian-rock soundtrack’s adult contemporary-sounding singles.
Like “Captain Underpants” earlier this year, “The Star” was produced on a budget far more modest than most big-studio cartoons, and the limitations are readily apparent, but probably not an obstacle to young audiences. Character designs are serviceable, but uninspired (apart from the Kristin Chenoweth-voiced mouse featured prominently in the first and last scenes), and director Timothy Reckart (an Oscar nominee for the terrific stop-motion short “Head Over Heels”) doesn’t even attempt the usual trick of relying upon gorgeous digital vistas and magic-hour lighting to cover the film’s shortcomings. Instead, he trusts in his voice cast and an amusing-enough script to keep audiences engaged, while putting the bulk of his faith in the fact that Christian moviegoers will support any film that embraces the spirit and values of the greatest story ever told.