Grade: B
2017, 86 min., Color
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Though there have been exceptions, big studios have mainly steered clear of Bible stories in recent years, leaving it to the low-budget indie filmmakers to tackle projects that were consistent with their beliefs. In their hands, however, the films were too often overly preachy or poorly written and acted.

So imagine my delight when our family watched this Dove-approved PG-rated animated film and actually saw wonderfully colorful and accomplished animation and backgrounds, as well as an all-star cast of voice talents having fun with their roles in  a biblical tale that was fully reimagined to fit today’s modes of creative storytelling. The Star wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t austere, it wasn’t boring, and it didn’t feel like a sit-still-and-listen Bible lesson. But it also wasn’t your typical Bible story. It’s structured more like any number of popular animated features, with an entertaining blend of music, comedy, talking animals, action (yes, action) and inspirational drama.

Mary looked and acted a bit like the younger sister from Frozen, while Joseph had his own “Wait, what?” moments facing off against a donkey that Mary decided to adopt and name Boaz—Bo, for short.

As we read in the end credits that probably should have been inserted as a pre-title sequence head’s up, “While having fun and taking some adventurous artistic license to tell this story, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told.”

That’s a good way to describe this film, which is not nearly close enough to The Bible to be considered an adaptation, or even earn a “based on” label. The Star is so “adventurous” in its liberties that it can only be said to have been “loosely inspired by” the nativity story.

In this version, King Herod doesn’t issue an edict to slaughter all Jewish babies after learning about the prophecy of a newborn Jewish King. Instead, he summons a menacing, totally cartoon-like (and ultra cool) villain with a full helmet and a pair of snarling dogs reined in with chains and tasks him with tracking Mary and Joseph and killing Baby Jesus, thereby setting up a narrative threat that continues throughout the entire film. And the wise men? They’re not as wise as their camels, who have a small hand in a grand animal plan to thwart the bad guy. Mary does ride into Bethlehem on a donkey, but the donkey is on a mission to keep her from harm. As for the shepherds, sheep showed them the way, though all of them were guided by The Star that they knew was somehow special.

Purists may hate this film because it deviates so remarkably from the story in The Bible, but consider this: If you allow your children to believe in Santa Claus while they’re very young, chances are you don’t have to educate them at some point to let them know Santa isn’t real, but rather loosely based on a historical character and more a symbol of the Christian spirit of giving than anything else. The kids figure it out for themselves. The same thing will happen here, if you haven’t already introduced your children to the story of the nativity so they already know real story.

And the filmmakers do stay true to the spirit of the nativity story while creating a wholly entertaining animated tale that’s not just for young children. Given the quality of writing, The Star seems aimed at the whole family, and there are laugh-out-loud moments—something I didn’t ever think I’d say about a Bible story film. Children will laugh, they’ll recognize beloved Christmas carols and songs in the background, they’ll hold their collective breaths as the characters face moments of peril, and along the way the basic story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus will come alive for them.

The voice talents are really on their game, and it’s clear that the project was special to them. Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) is the donkey Bo, Keegan-Michael Key is Bo’s dove friend Dave, Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) is Mary, Zachary Levi (the voice of Flynn in Tangled) plays Joseph, Kristin Chenoweth is the voice of the mouse, and Christopher Plummer is Herod, and the other voice talents include Ving Rhames, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kristofferson, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan. But it’s not only their creative interpretations. Though the characters and colors and basic story will hold the interest of young ones, there are also some smart lines here that are directed at adults and older children.

When the mouse is telling her story of how an angel of the Lord came to Mary to tell her she has been chosen to be Jesus’ mother, the mouse says, “I’m not ready to be a mom. But then I realized the angel was talking to the lady.” And when the camels catch a glimpse of King Herod and his fondness for all things gold, including gold shoes, one of them remarks, “That, Felix, is money and no taste.” After the first two wise men present their gifts of gold and myrrh, the third says, “Do you guys like Frankincense? I didn’t even know what to get.” And after the dove David helps his little donkey friend escape the slavery of a miller’s grindstone, he quips, “Just like we planned . . . but with a momentary near-death hiccup.”

Not all the contemporary language is played for laughs. There are inspirational moments as well, and the characters—even the little donkey—pray for guidance. When Joseph first learns of his wife-to-be’s virgin birth, he needs time to process it and tells Mary, when she responds to his plea not to overexert herself, “You are not fine. None of this is fine.” But he too prays and Mary later tells him, “Just because God has a plan doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy.” And in The Star, with those hounds tracking them (the most far-fetched element), it most certainly isn’t.

On Blu-ray, The Star looks fabulous, and if everything looks a little brighter and lusher than the Holy Land typically appears, even in the desert scenes, it’s because director Timothy Reckart was going for a Bethlehem of 2000 years ago when that land was less arid, by all accounts. In short, there’s nothing dusty about this film. Not literally, and certainly not metaphorically.

So why is it rated PG? Probably because of those moments of peril, the single mention of “poop,” and a bird saying “They can kiss my white tailfeathers”—also things I didn’t think I’d be saying in a review about a Bible story. But somehow, as crazy as it all sounds, it works.