Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews annual Christmas movie review, where I look at a Christmas-themed film. This year, I look at what I thought was not possible: a musical built around the birth of Christ.
I attend a Baptist church but am still highly reluctant to be baptized. My spiritual journey, however, has led me to a curious element in present-day American Christianity: the Christmas church show. We are mostly gone from the days when Sunday school students are trotted out to do a medley of Jingle Bells and O Holy Night or reenact the Magi's search for the Christ Child. While we do still see that in some churches, today's megachurches mount epic productions that would make the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark producers marvel at its scope. These are massive spectacles, some with original songs, lavish costumes and visual effects which can overwhelm congregants/spectators.
I am one of those "they mean well at heart" type of people when it comes to these big Christmas spectaculars. That is the attitude that I bring to Journey to Bethlehem.
Drawing from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we start with the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men) finding a star that they see as leading them to a new king. With that, Gaspar (Rizwan Manji), Melchior (Omid Djalili) and Baltazar (Geno Segers) begin their journey. That leads them to the Roman province of Judea, nominally ruled by King Herod (Antonio Banderas).
Herod is too busy drinking and keeping his son Antipater (Joel Smallbone) from the throne to care about his people. As such, the romantic struggles of the peasant girl Mary (Fiona Palomo) would be of no interest. Mary would much rather learn the Hebrew scriptures than marry but marry Mary must. As her sisters encourage her to look positively on her upcoming nuptials, she meets a nice but flirtatious Jewish boy who takes a shine to her. Good thing too, for Mary finds at her betrothal party that her fiancée is that same nice but flirtatious Jewish boy, Joseph (Milo Manheim).
While neither is particularly thrilled at the prospect of marrying the other, they do find something of a spark between them. Things take a wild turn when the Archangel Gabriel (Lecrae) comes to Mary and tells her that she is to bear the long-promised Messiah. That will be hard given that she is a virgin. Joseph and Mary's family are horrified at the pregnancy, so she is sent off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth to avoid scandal. Joseph, struggling with his feelings, also has a dream confirming the Child's divinity, and rushes to Mary's side.
By this time the Magi have come to Herod asking for help to find this new King. Herod is alarmed and angry. Will he get Antipater to slaughter the innocents? Will the bumbling Magi make it? Will Mary and Joseph both overcome their own struggles and find a place for her to give birth?
One cannot assume that the story of the Nativity is known to modern audiences. Even in the nominally Christian country of the United States, the basics of Christianity and/or Judaism can be unknown. It should be remembered that on a Jeopardy episode, not one contestant could answer a question related to The Lord's Prayer. As such, Journey to Bethlehem does cater more to contemporary views on society than what Scripture might hold. How else to explain seeing Mary, Mother of Jesus come across as an early version of Yentl? This Mary wants to study the word of God and not get married despite the catchy Mary's Getting Married number.
It also has Mary and Joseph essentially meet cute, with Joseph a bit of a klutz who tends to start conversations with "Thank you", slightly unsure of what to say. To be fair, a positive element of Journey to Bethlehem is that Mary and Joseph are closer to age versus the more traditional portrayal of Joseph as almost old enough to be Mary's father.
Journey to Bethlehem also caters to modern tastes at the Annunciation. Exactly why Gabriel has to be a bit clumsy and unsure when he comes to Mary is, to my mind, a way to humanize this most divine and holy of moments in Christianity. Writers Peter Barsocchini and Adam Anders (the latter who also directed), I figure, had the best of intentions in the making of the film. Again, to their credit they did well in humanizing the central characters of Mary and Joseph. We got to see them as young kids, unsure about things, caught up in very extraordinary situations.
However, the Annunciation scene bothered me greatly. I see no reason why the Archangel Gabriel had to be slightly comic in his hesitancy. This is the single greatest turning point in human history: the Word made Flesh, God come into the world. To try and add lightness to what should be a moment of solemnity and dignity runs the risk of making light of the moment. I think it was a mistake to have Gabriel bump his head as he glides towards the sleeping Mother of Christ.
Despite that, a lot of Journey to Bethlehem is entertaining, mostly intentionally so. Musicals live and die on the songbook, and there are some quite good numbers in the film. A true highlight is the Herod number Good to Be the King. Banderas is devouring the scenery with wild glee, delighting in showing off Herod's lust for power. The music and lyrics (written by director Anders, Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom) gives Good to Be the King a wild, pulsating manner. It also manages to work in parts of The Lord's Prayer in a deliberate way.
"Mine is the kingdom, mine is the power, mine is the glory, forever more!" Harod belts out. It is surprisingly bold to put the words of Christ in Harod's mouth, but it works. The songs shift well from scene to scene depending on the moment. You have the overtly goofy Three Wise Guys where the Magi work to charm the mercurial Harod, a clear comic number in keeping with the lighthearted portrayal of the Wise Men. Then there is what I think the other good number that is not Good to Be the King. The surprisingly tender We Become We, a duet between Joseph and Mary when both accept the truth about their feelings for each other despite Mary's pregnancy, is quite pleasant and moving. I would not be surprised to hear We Become We become a wedding song.
I think there were maybe one or two musical numbers that did not fully work for me. There's the aforementioned Mary's Getting Married, which was a bit forced in portraying her conflicted views on the arranged marriage. Smallbone's In My Blood, where he struggles with his legacy as Harod's son, is also slightly unintentionally comic. The dancing Roman soldiers might have done that part wrong. It is curious that Smallbone, better known as part of the Christian Contemporary Music group For King and Country, had one of the weaker numbers.
It is more puzzling that Lecrae, who has a good career as a CCM rap artist, was not given a song to perform.
I think the performances ranged from the pleasant to the appropriately crazed. Manheim and Palomo are quite pleasant and charming as Joseph and Mary, this couple of kids who go from hesitant to aware of love. Both have solo numbers: Mother to a Savior and King for Palomo, The Ultimate Deception for Manheim. They both did well both separate and together. I would give the edge to Manheim, who made Joseph less polished despite being older than Mary. He is unsure and unsteady, even able to show inner conflict (albeit by literally playing a split version of himself in The Ultimate Deception). Palomo made Mary into a more confident figure, which is at odds with Mary as the humble maiden traditionally thought of.
Banderas is absolutely loving tearing into King Harod as a drunk, slightly looney but still dangerous figure. He belts out Good to Be the King with wild abandon, a bit camp but still fun. Smallbone looks like his job is to growl and scowl, but it was fine.
Journey to Bethlehem is fine. Given its surprisingly brief running time of 98 minutes, I think families will find in it a nice, mostly inoffensive take on the Yuletide season. I did a like how it humanized Joseph and Mary, down to ending the film with them framing the film as the story they tell a child Jesus about His birth. I think it might have been slightly more reverential given the subject matter, but on the whole, I think they meant well.
2022: Santa Claus (1959)
2020: Roots: The Gift
2019: Last Christmas
2017 (Day): The Man Who Invented Christmas
2017 (Eve): Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
2016: Batman Returns
2015: A Madea Christmas
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2012: Arthur Christmas