An animated fable about the first Christmas, “The Star” reimagines the Nativity story from the perspective of an animal — actually, an entire menagerie of comical Holy Land critters, led by a miniature donkey, who become key supporting players in the tale.
Among the production companies involved in making “The Star” are the faith-based Walden Media and Sony’s religious wing, Affirm Films. The movie is sincerely Christian in its outlook, while also a slapstick animal toon. It’s a mix that works only intermittently. But when it doesn’t pop, it thuds.
Screenwriter Carlos Kotkin and director Timothy Reckart (whose 2012 short film “Head Over Heels” earned him an Oscar nomination), mine every opportunity for goofy animal humor: Voiced by a self-effacing Steven Yuen, the film’s donkey hero, Bo, has a hoof-scrambling, Wile E. Coyote moment skittering down between two cliff walls, and Bo’s pal, a pugnacious dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key) ponders unloading on the head of a mean human. Despite animation that has the hard-plastic look of CGI, the Holy Land backgrounds are rather lovely, and the animals’ fur looks quite scratch-able.
The screenplay contains the odd comedic clunker or two, as when the animals misconstrue a reference to the “King of the Jews” as “King of the Shoes.” (There are, in fact, few, if any, specific references to the Jewish religion and culture into which Jesus will soon be born, nor to the Roman rule over Judea. King Herod, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is just a bad guy.)
The film opens in what we’re told is Nazareth, 9 months B.C. Abby (Kristin Chenoweth), a hoppy little rodent, witnesses the Annunciation firsthand, when an angel appears to Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and tells her that she will conceive and bear a son. On her wedding day, a visibly pregnant Mary worries about telling Joseph (Zachary Levi), but that conversation doesn’t occur on-screen. He seems loving and nonjudgmental — merely worried he won’t be a worthy dad to the Messiah.
Bo, who sees the bright star in the East, longs for adventure, but he’s yoked to a millstone in Nazareth. Escaping, he gallops off with Dave flying alongside.
The two animals take shelter in Mary and Joseph’s yard, where Mary binds the donkey’s injured ankle. After she and Joseph leave for Bethlehem to take part in a census, a grim-faced soldier with two snarling dogs comes looking for them, on orders from Herod. Because Bo senses the peril, he and Dave chase after Mary and Joseph, setting them on a journey that culminates in the birth of Jesus. Along the way, they befriend a sheep (Aidy Bryant) who left her heedless flock to follow the star. Further along, they encounter the three Wise Men — or, more accurately, their three camels (voiced by Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan and Tyler Perry).
“The Star” walks a fine line, trying to simultaneously stay grounded in the New Testament, avoid details that might offend non-Christian viewers, tell an emotionally profound tale and go for all the animal-centric yuks it can. That’s a hard trick to pull off: leavening honest piety with pie-in-the-face humor. The uneven results show.
It isn’t great by any means, but “The Star” has enough good qualities that some viewers looking for faith-based family fare as Christmas nears will probably say, “Amen.”