In Nazareth, Bo the donkey (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun) is sick of being shackled to a mill-stone grinding wheat. He yearns to escape, along with his dove friend Dave (Keegan Michael-Key) and fulfill their lifelong dream of joining the royal caravan. So he can feel important. When, thanks to a kindly Old Donkey (Kris Kristofferson), Bo finally gets his chance, the enraged miller is hot on his hoofs. Bo finds a safe place to hide at the home of Mary (Gina Rodriguez), a kindly young woman who just received some auspicious news and faces a perilous journey. Meanwhile across the land, animals everywhere are drawn to a mysterious star in the sky. It seems to grow bigger and brighter each day, heralding something miraculous.
Sony Pictures Animation assembled a surprisingly starry cast for this computer animated re-telling of the Nativity of Jesus. Depending on one's religious inclination, or lack thereof, viewers will either wholeheartedly embrace The Star or question whether it needs to exist at all. Nevertheless, given most Christmas-themed cartoons settle either for the safe option of Santa Claus or stories laden with simplistic greetings card sentiment (or worse yet: crass commercialism) this one it at least refreshing in dealing with why people actually celebrate this holiday. To its credit the film's Christian outlook is entirely sincere without coming across as bludgeoning or didactic.
Recalling both the Rankin-Bass favourite Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) and Don Bluth's undervalued Disney short The Small One (1978), the plot's offbeat combination of earnest gospel drama and zany slapstick is only intermittently successful. For every priceless comedy moment - as when three camels voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey (!) pull a Marx Brothers-style 'mirror gag' on King Herod (Christopher Plummer who, forty years after Jesus of Nazareth (1977) has this kind of role down pat) - there are others liable to make older viewers cringe. However, despite the occasional lapse into kitsch or cloying sentiment, The Star is consistently redeemed by its plethora of heartfelt tender moments. Especially humanized moments that show Joseph and Mary, drawn with pleasing ethnic accuracy, grapple with not only the weight of God's plan but parental anxieties in general. On the voice-acting front both Steven Yeun and Gina Rodriguez are especially strong while the assembly of a multiracial voice cast (a nice cross-section of black, Asian, white and Jewish actors), for a story whose universal resonance has historically been too often white-washed, is especially gratifying.
At its heart The Star is a story about escaping enslavement and using that freedom in the pursuit of something worthwhile. Themes that gel nicely with those inherent in the Nativity. Seemingly less interested in courting the secular mainstream than a gospel audience the film also boasts a soundtrack laden with country and black gospel music. As well as pop performers Fifth Harmony, Zara Larsson and Mariah Carey (who also voices a diva horse with showbiz dreams that, er, goes unmentioned in the Bible). While it does not come close to the best Christian-themed animated film, The Miracle Maker (1999), The Star is a handsome production with fluid and intricate animation imbued with an impressive sense of scale. If the story holds meaning for you it will also warm your heart.