You thought you knew the story of the first Christmas — BUT YOU WERE WRONG! As explained by “The Star,” a timidly respectful animated story aimed at Christian families, an adventure-seeking donkey actually played a much larger role than the Gospels would have you believe.
We begin with Mary (voice of Gina Rodriguez) being visited by the angel in, according to the onscreen titles, “Nazareth, 9 months B.C.,” which, OK, is pretty funny. You know that part of the story already, and the screenplay by Carlos Kotkin (“Rio 2”) hews closely to the biblical account where those matters are concerned, even borrowing some of the scriptural dialogue.
The creative license begins with a mill donkey, Bo (Stephen Yeun), who yearns to escape and lead the royal caravan, which I guess is the donkey equivalent of getting into Harvard. He does escape, but he hurts his leg and ends up becoming the pet of several-months-pregnant Mary and her new husband Joseph (Zachary Levi), who is jealous of the attention Mary pays to the donkey, mostly just to give the story some conflict. When they toddle off to Bethlehem, they leave Bo behind.
Meanwhile, three wise men roll into town on their camels (Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan), looking for the “new king.” The old king, Herod (Christopher Plummer), sends a henchman and his two attack dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) in search of the alleged royal baby so he can, you know, kill it. Bo gets wind of the plot from his know-it-all friend Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key) and hurries after Mary and Joseph to warn them, aided by Ruth the sheep (Aidy Bryant), whom Dave the dove dislikes mostly just to give the story some more conflict.
Directed by Timothy Reckart (an animator making his debut feature), “The Star” looks as plastic as a cheap Nativity set, but that’s probably beside the point. The film feints at comedy now and then, almost exploring the humor inherent in Mary’s virginal pregnancy (picture the conversation: “So, Joseph? I have something to tell you…”) but mostly finding small chuckles in animal slapstick and misunderstandings. (One of the camels mishears: “King of the shoes?”)
The primary objective is to treat the subject reverently and instill positive spiritual values; several characters are shown praying and receiving answers to their prayers. The thin story is stretched to its breaking point — this 86-minute movie could have been 60 — and it’s overstuffed with extraneous characters voiced by the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth, and Kris Kristofferson. But it’s a solid choice for religious families looking to entertain and edify their children, or for people who need a new Christmas soundtrack in their lives.
B- (1 hr., 26 min.; )