[Screen It]


(2017) (voices of Steven Yeun, Keegan-Michael Key) (PG)

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Animated Dramedy: A small millhouse donkey gets his chance to make a difference as he attempts to keep a pregnant woman out of harm's way as she prepares to deliver the son of God to the world.
Bo (voice of STEVEN YEUN) is a small donkey who wants more out of life than walking in circles all day paired with Old Donkey (voice of KRIS KRISTOFFERSON) grinding grain in ancient Nazareth. He's friends with Dave (voice of KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY), a pigeon who comes and goes as he pleases, and the two imagine one day joining the Royal Caravan and traveling the world. But an attempt to escape from the human miller fails and Bo finds himself stuck right back where he started.

Unbeknownst to him, his life is going to change in ways he couldn't imagine thanks to God choosing Mary (voice of GINA RODRIGUEZ) and Joseph (voice of ZACHARY LEVI) to bring His son into the world. The talk of a new king doesn't sit well with King Herod (voice of CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER), the ruler of Judea who orders his henchman to find out who this new king is and put an end to him. And with the use of his two menacing dogs, Thaddeus (voice of VING RHAMES) and Rufus (voice of GABRIEL IGLESIAS), the henchman sets out to accomplish this task.

With some help from his mill partner, Bo finally manages to escape and ends up in Mary and Joseph's yard with an injured leg. Despite humans being unable to understand the talking animals, Mary is nice to Bo and helps him, a favor he feels he needs to return when Joseph and a very pregnant Mary set off on foot for Bethlehem to follow a new star that's shining brightly in the sky.

Along the way, he runs into Ruth (voice of AIDY BRYANT), a talkative sheep who decides to help him whether he wants that or not. At the same time, Herod secretly hopes to use the three wise men -- who've arrived via camels Deborah (voice of OPRAH WINFREY), Cyrus (voice of TYLER PERRY) and Felix (voice of TRACY MORGAN) -- to unwittingly lead his henchman to the pregnant woman, all while small mouse Abby (voice of KRISTEN CHENOWETH) tries to get to her to warn her of Herod's plans.

With everyone arriving in Bethlehem -- where manger animals Leah the horse (voice of KELLY CLARKSON), Edith the cow (voice of PATRICIA HEATON) and Zach the goat (voice of ANTHONY ANDERSON) don't realize the momentous arrival headed their way, Bo and his small ragtag group of fellow animals try to protect Mary and her unborn son from Herod's henchman and his two ferocious dogs.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's one of the best known and easily recognized stories in the world, told countless times over the millennia. While The Nativity has occasionally been re-imagined in a few ways, I'm not sure I recall one where the main characters weren't Mary, Joseph, or the usual assortment of biblical folks and instead were a talking donkey, pigeon, and goat, among others.

But that's the "twist" that the folks at Sony Pictures Animation have concocted with the simply titled "The Star." In it, a work donkey, Bo (voiced by Steven Yeun), longs for a better life than walking in circles behind his grain grinder workmate (Kris Kristofferson, only around at the beginning). Namely, that's joining the prestigious Royal Caravan, a dream shared by his best friend, the pigeon Dave (Keegan-Michael Key).

But after the donkey manages to escape, he ends up in the backyard of one Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) who've recently discovered that she's caring the son of God via the barely addressed immaculate conception (this being a kids film, that wasn't really expected to be addressed in anything more than a cursory fashion).

The critters aren't aware of this divine development, but King Herod (Christopher Plummer, suddenly the busy man again in Hollywood) has learned of the pending arrival of a new king and thus sends his henchman and two ferocious attack dogs (voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to take care of the matter. It's then up to Bo and Dave, along with a lone goat they pick up along the way (Aidy Bryant, sort of doing an Ellen DeGeneres Dory sort of character), to make sure the expectant couple makes it safe and sound to Bethlehem.

Aside from the story angle being told from the animals' perspective, there clearly aren't any other surprises in terms of the storyline, and the film even states at one point (via on-screen text) "While taking some fun and adventurous license to tell this story, the filmmakers (namely director Timothy Reckart and screenwriter Carlos Kotkin) strived to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told."

I do think the film will play well across all viewers, except, of course, those critics seemingly willing to pick a fight with any film that dares depict any sort of religion in a positive light. The story moves along at a good clip, the characters are appropriately likable, some are goofy, and the villains do what they must to keep the conflict level high enough to create engaging drama. And there's plenty of enough comedy and action to keep this from feeling like just a straight-up Sunday school lesson.

In fact, I'm certainly happy the filmmakers didn't go the "preach to the choir" route that so many religious films seem to think they must do at the expense of those not looking for a sermon in their movie entertainment. Instead, it comes off as a religious flick without any pretense or preachiness.

And I'm glad some money was pumped into the production budget as I've seen other animated religious flicks that skimped on the effects and looked downright clunky and embarrassing. Here, the visuals are handsomely drawn and presented, offering a visual palette that's pleasing to the eye. Vocal work is also solid across the board.

While the underlying story won't catch anyone by surprise -- Spoiler Alert: Joseph and Mary do make it to the manger safe and sound -- there are enough nuances to the smaller details to keep things interesting in what amounts to a decently entertaining offering. While it might not be up there with the best of studio-based animated pics (especially the Pixar line), "The Star" is good enough to score a recommendation and a rating of 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11. 2017 / Posted November 17. 2017

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