4 Stars - Wholesome
The familiar story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is central to our celebration of Christmas. Even for those who do not accept his birth as the miracle it proclaims, the story has a charm that never grows old. All the elements of the Biblical story are presented: a virgin miraculously conceives, a betrothed accepts and supports her, a cruel king tries to kill the child, the homeless couple searches for a place to give birth, the child is born in a stable and laid in a manger surrounded by animals, the shepherds and the magi from the East arrive to worship the Baby Jesus. Even if you don’t believe it to be true as we do, along with 2.3 billion Christians around the world, it is a story that speaks deeply to the heart.
In this 2017 telling of the Christmas story, we have an imaginative weaving together of humanity and animals as both are given voices and prominence within the tale written by Simon Moore and adapted by Carolos Kotkin, with Timothy Reckhart directing this animated version. Along with the necessary human characters of Mary (voice by Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (voice by Zachary Levi), the murderous King Herod (Christopher Plummer), and the three magi, we are introduced to an ensemble of animals.
At the center of the ensemble is Bo (Steven Yeun), a miniature donkey with gigantic dreams. Tied to a grinding mill with only a small peekhole in the wall to view the outside world, he is partnered with an older donkey (Kris Kristofferson) and befriended by a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key). As his eyes to the outside world, Dave helps Bo hatch a plan to get him free from his shackles so that he can join the royal caravan and have the important job of carrying a king.
As imagination would tell it, Bo breaks free but has to flee from the miller and happens to hide in Joseph and Mary’s courtyard. Here their lives predictably intertwine so that Bo accompanies them on their journey to Bethlehem, but not without some wonderful story telling in which Bo and Dave add a young sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant) to their “flock”.
Another animal character in the story is a little rodent named Abby (Kristen Chenowith) whose scurrying escapades lead us to the annunciation of Mary when she receives the angel’s message of her miraculous pregnancy, as well as three humorous camels: Felix (Tracy Morgan), Cyrus (Tyler Perry) and Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), who bring the magi from the East. Each of these play a major part in the tale. The villains in the animal world sent by King Herod are two attack dogs: Thaddeus (Ving Rhames) and Rufus (Gabriel Iglesias) led by a cruel master.
One of the pleasures of the film is the music. As Pentatonix sets the stage at the beginning of the film and reminds us that this is the Christmas story, we enjoy the music of Mariah Carey, Zara Larsson and Yolanda Adams among others.
For the donkey who is enslaved to the miller’s wheel and the sheep that is rejected by her flock to both see the natal star and greet it with expectation is an imaginative and insightful way to tell this familiar story. That all of creation is in need of redemption and being set free is why Jesus came to earth, so for the animals in this tale to experience such freedom and transformation is an inspiring and faithful adaptation of Christ’s story. Both children and adults will enjoy this charming film and better understand the reason we celebrate during this season of Christmas.
- The projecting of human emotions and language onto the animals gives us another lens through which to view this story. What insights did you gain from this? What surprised you or deepened your understanding?
- The play on the biblical names of Boaz and Ruth, as well as the Persian king Cyrus, the Roman King Felix and the Israelite judge Deborah, calls to the inclusion of those parts of the story, both before and after the birth of Christ. What other allusions did you notice?
- The children we saw the film with had a discussion as to whether Bo should have allowed the newly transformed attack dogs, Rufus and Thaddeus, near the baby Jesus when they had wanted to kill him only moments before. Which side of that argument would you take and why?