Monday, 4 December 2017

The Star (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Grain mill donkey Bo (Steven Yeun) dreams of being part of the royal caravan in Jerusalem. However, once he notices a particularly bright star in the sky, he realizes that something special is about to happen. With Dave the dove (Keegan-Michael Key) and Ruth the sheep (Aidy Bryant) in tow, he sets out to find Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi), who are about to be parents to the saviour of all humanity.

Yeun as our lead donkey (ugh, we’ll get to my problems with that alone in a moment) just kind of exists. Between the lukewarm dialogue and equally lukewarm performance, this supposed lead character barely has enough charisma to justify that label. Rodriguez and Levi as Mary and Joseph respectively do well, although I seriously suspect that they are actually in the middle of a far better movie that this one keeps interrupting. Key is easily the most entertaining actor here; not only does he get some of the film’s better jokes, but the guy’s comic timing outclasses pretty much everyone else here. If he wasn’t one of the main three, this film would be in serious trouble.
The rest of the cast is chock-full of recognisable names, same for good (Gabriel Iglesias and Ving Rhames as two attack dogs work nicely), some for bad (Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey are the Holy Trinity of annoyance as the Three Wise Men’s camels) and some for outright depressing reasons (Christopher “Not exactly the best replacement for Kevin Spacey” Plummer as King Herod is passable, given the little screen time he gets).

So, we’re dealing with a Biblical story being retold from the perspective of talking animals… again. I am getting rather sick of this approach to animated films, where it’s just the same story that a lot of people have heard of but with talking animals to report on things from their point of view. The reasons for this are two-fold: One, it so often feels like the main story of the film is barging into the famous story of the film and the two rarely mix well; two, what is being barged in on usually ends up being the more compelling story. While the story of Mary and Joseph is easily one of the most widely-known Biblical stories there is, I will admit to liking how it is handled (for as little of it as we end up seeing).
For a start, it manages to sidestep the usual squick associated with this kind of story involving a god impregnating an underage girl through Mary and Joseph being pretty stable characters overall. For another, it actually brings in Joseph’s own worries concerning the new baby. Not because it technically isn’t his, but because being tasked with helping to raise the literal Messiah is a tall order. Would have been nicer if the film did anything with that, beyond just two scenes of him expressing those doubts far removed from each other, but it’s at least something. Specifically, something to distract from how utilitarian the plot is.

The dialogue here is a seriously mixed bag. On one hand, the comedy is actually pretty decent. It mainly revolves around puns and literal stupid humour, and again most of the good stuff is given to Keegan-Michael Key, but it actually got some laughs out of me (opening on “9 months B.C.” immediately got a chuckle out of me) and the jokes that didn’t work out weren’t so bad as to cause pain. The dramatic dialogue, on the other hand? This film might have the single plainest approach to drama that I’ve seen all year, mainly because of how artificial pretty much every conflict is.
So, the Three Wise Men arrive to see King Herod… but then tell him and that they’re not there for him but for the person who eventually take his place as king. How were they expecting anything good to come out of that? When Joseph questions his status as father to a demigod in Jesus, all two times he does it, he ends up coming around within seconds and it’s as if it was never a concern to begin with. When Bo finally gets a chance to join the royal caravan, something that also happens at least twice over the course of the film, he suddenly decides to go back to Mary and Joseph for no other reason than the plot requires him to. These are some of the bigger examples, but every time the film tries to push for conflict, it’s done through means that are incredibly forced and unnatural. You can almost see writer Carlos Kotkin looking for cracks in the story to try and wedge drama into, only it rarely works because the force required is fairly obvious.

That isn’t the only reason it doesn’t work, though, and this ties back into the intersection of talking animals and religious drama. The original story is effective because of how simple it is: The saviour of all mankind being born in the most unlikely of places and welcomed into the world with open arms. Of course, doing things simply isn’t in the cards for this film, as it is extremely cluttered with how many subplots are at work. You’ve got Bo and Dave wanting to join the royal caravan, Ruth the sheep getting over her problems with her old flock, the two dogs and their silent, very Skyrim-looking executioner looking for Mary, the Three Wise Men and their camels looking for Mary, along with the actual story of the birth of Jesus. This film doesn’t even reach 90 minutes; it has no chance being able to juggle all of this and not lose the point of the entire narrative.
And quite frankly, that’s exactly what happens here. Rather than being a reaffirmation of the true meaning of Christmas and showing compassion for the less fortunate, it’s too loud and crowded and weirdly animated (yeah, didn’t get into that earlier but the CGI is this strange midway point between realistic and cartoonishly bouncy. It’s quite distracting.) for any of that to sink in. From studios like The Jim Henson Company and Sony Pictures Animation (we’ll just ignore what else they released this year) to director Timothy Reckart who was the head animator for Anomalisa to its relatively high-profile cast, this should have been better.

All in all, it might be a decent distraction for kids but it won’t have much to offer anyone else. The acting is mixed, with only Keegan-Michael Key giving a noteworthy performance, the animation is mostly off-putting, the writing suffocates real theological weight with animated animal butts and the sense that this is a film based on a story from the Bible is pretty much forgotten. There’s been worse family films this year, particularly by Sony Pictures Animation, but this is still quite dull when all is said and done.

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