It borders on trite to say that a great animated film can speak to anyone, but that’s the nature of the medium. It begs to explore its topic in new and interesting ways, so the idea of using it to retell the story of the Nativity told from the point of view of the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem isn’t that far off base. In the hands of a team more well-versed in animation’s unique storytelling capabilities – Disney, Laika, WAG or even Dreamworks or Illumination – there’s a potentially memorable film in the works. Unfortunately, in the hands of Sony Pictures Animation, the group which birthed this year’s brain-numbing anti-comedy “The Emoji Movie,” “The Star” becomes the latest in a long line of poorly animated, sloppily written cash grabs whose only purpose is to take advantage of families looking for an accessible Christmas movie.
The problems with the animation rear their ugly heads early on; this quality would be standard and unremarkable if this were the mid-2000s. The fact of the matter is that the art form has progressed remarkably in the years since, allowing for films like “Coco” which would have been impossible even a few short years ago. But where Pixar’s latest delivered painstakingly rendered frames with millions of details, “The Star” features multiple scenes of characters looking at each other but seemingly not seeing each other. The expressivity allowed by animation is negated by the lifeless masks which comprise most of the characters.
The writing does the characters no favors, either, making the leads easily identifiable only by the tropes they fall into. Bo the Donkey (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”) is the dreamer who wants something more than his simple life. Dave the Dove (Keegan-Michael Key, “Keanu”) is the wacky sidekick. He shakes his butt in one scene and it’s called back to so often that it was apparently the scene that was supposed to clinch the film its Oscar. Ruth the Sheep (Aidy Bryant, “The Big Sick”) talks about being a “flock” a lot and would have been the emotional heart of the film had she not been written with a crippling lack of personality.
But the weak links in a cast made up of weak links are the three camels carrying the wise men of “We Three Kings” fame. These are apparently meant to be comic relief, but somewhere along the line, someone forgot to write any actual jokes. At one point, one of these camels (Oprah Winfrey, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) gets the absolutely incredible line, “That King Herod is up to something,” which is perhaps the most casual way the topic of infanticide has been broached in film history.
For the most part, the vocal performances are serviceable, and given the quality of the writing, it’s understandable that no one in the surprisingly packed cast brings their A-game. Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) and Zachary Levi (“Alias Grace”) are the stand-outs here as Mary and Joseph, if only because their characters are the only ones who can pass for interesting and the actors therefore have something to work with.
Once more, the camels represent the worst “The Star” has to offer in this area. In addition to Winfrey, Tracy Morgan (“Fist Fight”) and Tyler Perry (“Boo 2! A Madea Halloween”) lend their vocal talents to the film, and they bring with them their respective shticks. Morgan shouts nearly every single line. On the other end of the spectrum is Perry, who reads every line without a hint of inflection. Winfrey, the most talented of the trio, hardly bears mentioning, as she never gets an opportunity to ingratiate herself to the audience beyond the aforementioned genocide line.
The only memorable thing about “The Star” is when the Baby Jesus finally makes an appearance, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the Boss Baby, which is either an unfortunate mistake or the most brilliant, underplayed joke of the year. And when the best part of an animated movie very likely comes down to animator ignorance, it’s probably better to see what new brilliance the grown-ups — Pixar perhaps — are up to.