Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the Nativity — the dramatic birth of Jesus, tucked away in a barn with Mary and Joseph, the three kings with their frankincense and myrrh. It's a tale we see displayed every Christmas season on lawns and mantels around the world. But what if we saw that from another perspective? Like, say, the little donkey curled up by the manger? The animated feature "The Star" takes this point of view, and its version of the story is a whole lot wilder and rollicking than the one we've heard before.
This film, written by Carlos Kotkin and directed by Timothy Reckart, takes the Bible story and subsumes it into the kind of fast-talking, cute animal entertainment that happens to be catnip for kids. It's an ancient tale with a modern sensibility thanks to the posse of wise-cracking furry friends who help Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem.
The hero of the story is Bo the donkey (Steven Yeun), who dreams of a better life than milling grain in a dark barn. He escapes to join the Royal Caravan with his best friend, Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key), and soon stumbles into the yard of Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi). Meanwhile, three magi have told King Herod (Christopher Plummer) about the impending arrival of a new king, and Herod dispatches his evil henchman and bloodthirsty dogs to dispatch the babe.
This is the kind of film that wants to reach out to kids and make this not just palatable, but a fun and entertaining way for them to learn the Bible story. The cutesy animal characters, contemporary dialogue, silly humor and relentless action all serve to make this look and feel like every other animated movie these kids have seen this year. It's not a musical, but the story pauses every so often for a pop, country or R&B Christmas tune from its star-studded soundtrack.
Ultimately, "The Star" is a rather manic film, with endless chase scenes that inject drama and suspense into this tale. The simple story wouldn't sustain interest without the narrative padding of Bo's dreams of a better life, ferocious dogs hunting Mary through the desert and a sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant) and her reconciliation with her flock.
The animation style is basic but bold and colorful and a host of stars populate the voice performances. Perhaps the most memorable is Tracy Morgan as one of the kings' sassy camels, managing to outshine Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, who voice the other camels.
"The Star" feels like an educational film rather than pure entertainment, bringing the ancient origins of Christmas to young audiences, but tailored to their needs and wants. It's a serviceable animated movie appropriate for the season, but there's nothing beyond its source material that marks it as particularly unique or special.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rating: PG for some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: In general release