Sony Pictures Animation throws its hat in the ring of family-friendly summer flicks with The Star, a Christmas origin story told from the point-of-view of a group of animals.
Bo (Steven Yeun), the film’s protagonist, is a donkey that believes he’s destined for something bigger than grinding grain. His days are spent dreaming of breaking free from the Mill and joining the Royal Caravan. A dream that is encouraged by his best friend and wingman Dave (Keegan-Michael Key), a wisecracking dove with a big personality to boot. When his opportunity to escape arrives, he does so with gusto and then stumbles across Mary (Gina Rodriguez), a kind-hearted expectant mother, and her husband Joseph (Zachary Levi). Bo soon discovers that Mary and her unborn child are in danger and must do all he can to keep them safe.
The Star is the first collaboration between Sony Pictures and Cinesite Animation and the feature-length directorial debut for Timothy Reckart. In 2013, Reckart received an Oscar nod for his stop-motion animated short Head Over Heels (2012). Cinesite, having worked on two productions since launching in 2016, produced the film in fewer than 12 months. The result is a film that remains faithful to the nativity story while also taking creative license to add humour and action. To date, Sony Pictures haven’t had enormous success in the world of animation, perhaps except for Hotel Transylvania (2015) and the sequel that followed. The Star, while charming, isn’t going to be the film to change things.
It’s no secret that a stellar sidekick can steal the show in an animated feature. While Dave the dove doesn’t come close to the heights reached by Aladdin’s Genie or the pocket-sized dragon Mushu in Mulan (1998), he does provide much-needed comic relief. First prize for the best line has to be when Dave yells, “wait a second, are they eating chicken? Ladies RUN!” to a group of startled hens. Keegan-Michael Key, who voices Dave, is best known for the sketch comedy Key and Peele (2012-2015). If you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and watch his Substitute Teacher skit – the choice to cast him will become clear.
Tracey Morgan has a voice made for animation and superbly brings the character of Felix, a not-so-wise camel, to life. Then there’s Ruth, voiced by SNL’s Aidy Bryant, an odd but friendly sheep who guides Bo on his journey to Bethlehem. Ruth, who has left her flock to follow the new star in the sky, is an instant mood-booster for audiences and an example to children that it’s okay to go your own way. Steven Yuen, or Glenn from The Walking Dead (2010-2016) as he’s more widely known, is no stranger to voice acting having worked on the popular TV series The Legend of Korra (2013) and Voltron (2016-2017). Add in a few other famous names including Christopher Plummer as King Herod, Oprah Winfrey as Deborah the camel and Kristin Chenoweth as a mouse with a big mouth, and you’ve got yourself an all-star cast.
Then there’s the music, for what would a Christmas movie be without Christmas music? The soundtrack features classic and new music from the likes of Zara Larson, Fifth Harmony and A Great Big World. But the biggest win comes from the queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey, who penned the title track. She took a spiritual approach to writing the song and even made it a family affair with her twins singing background vocals.
A huge focus is on the music throughout, but unfortunately, this is the film’s downfall. It’s as if the music department had X number of songs to squeeze into the 86 minute run-time which resulted in over-crowding and random placement. Take for instance Casting Crowns’ rendition of the hymn His Eye is on the Sparrow. This song is distinctly about having faith, but it plays in a scene where Bo has seemingly given up. Aside from its sombre tone, it doesn’t make sense. Another odd choice is casting Kelly Clarkson as Leah, an eccentric stable horse who loves the spotlight, but not featuring her on the soundtrack. To not use Clarkson’s remarkable talent seems like a missed opportunity.
An audience of 10 and under is the target demographic for this film, with only a few characters providing entertainment that all can enjoy. The good news for parents is that it’s packed with positive themes of courage and forgiveness and isn’t too scary for the little ones. Maybe it’s also good that kids leave the cinema realising Christmas isn’t about an overweight man climbing down their non-existent chimney to deliver gifts.
The question is can The Star compete with the likes of Coco, the latest animation from heavyweight Disney-Pixar, and the story of a giant bull with a big heart in Ferdinand; both due for release in December. One thing is for sure, the film’s November release date will give it a much-needed head start.
This is the second time Mariah Carey has sung a song for an animated religious movie. The first time was The Prince of Egypt (1998), where she sang the song “When You Believe” with the late Whitney Hudson.