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Decoding the Christmas musical ‘Journey To Bethlehem’

This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.

(REVIEW) “Journey To Bethlehem” is heavy on cheesy jokes, but lacks the heart that we expect from a family Christmas movie, including the sacredness we expect from a film about Jesus.

It’s hard to believe that, of all the Christmas classic movies that Americans watch year after year, almost none of them are about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Given that the birth of Jesus is such a huge part of the celebration of Christmas for millions of American Christians, you’d think that there would be one or two that would have entered the pantheon of annual Christmas offerings.

Sure, there’s the movie “The Nativity Story,” starring Oscar Isaac and Ciaran Hinds. But that’s hardly a universally known or beloved classic. One would be hard-pressed to name any others.

That’s why the musical “Journey To Bethlehem” was such an exciting prospect. Here you had the birth of Jesus done in the style of a family-friendly musical that seemed — at least from the trailers — like the right blend of the classic Biblical story and the kind of Christmas-season cheer we’ve come to expect from the movies that we sit by the fire and watch with our families. I would love to have a movie about Jesus be on the rotation of movies I watch with my family each year.

Of course, this movie is not without controversy. One Facebook post , which garnered over 45,000 shares, urged parents not to take their children to the movie because it, among other things, portrayed Mary as angry and rebellious and Joseph as flirting while engaged. The woman gave an edit to the post later moderating her position slightly after talking with producers – but still cautioned parents about taking their kids to it.

I didn’t find any problematic messages in the movie or unfaithfulness to Scripture. The bigger problem with this film is that it’s just very forgettable entertainment for little kids.

There are moments where the movie works. Mary and Joseph getting a corny meet-cute where he stumbles over himself with her and she is irritated, but charmed, by him is adorable. Mary wanting to be a teacher and not interested in marriage is silly, but has a 1990s Disney princess charm that sets up her story arc.

The Wise Men being a comedy trio is a fun idea and they get some good lines that create some genuine laughs. There are some clever ways the movie creates genuine drama as well. King Herod singing “mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” to set up its subversion with Jesus’ birth is a brilliant way to illustrate how His claims were a political challenge to the ruling powers of his day. The idea, also, to make Mary’s character arc one where she learns to see that God’s plans for her life are better than her own is a good one.

Without a doubt, the best character goes to Antipater, Herod’s son, played by Joel Smallborne of the Christian band “For King and Country.” He is the character that is played with the most nuanced and thought as he does his best to honor his father, while being deeply opposed to brutality. He struggles to reconcile the two. His character’s struggle and stakes feel real, and you buy where his arc goes in the story.

Nevertheless, the movie ultimately collapses under the weight of its own silliness. Like Taika Waititi with “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the filmmakers of “Journey To Bethlehem” don’t seem to know how to stop making silly jokes long enough that any emotional weight can affect us.

Nearly every scene or moment is the opportunity for some trite gag — even moments that should have some solemnity and weight, such as the angel Gabriel practicing nervously what he’s going to say to Mary or hitting his head on the roof beam. Likewise, Mary and Joseph’s bickering overstays its welcome to the degree that it is no longer charming, but makes you lose respect for them. The worst characterization is with Joseph, who flirts with her even though he’s engaged (he doesn’t know it’s her) and she tells him she’s engaged (she doesn’t know it’s him).

When the movie isn’t making jokey-jokes, it’s convoluting chase sequences or features characters hiding from the Romans. This means we don’t sit with Mary and Joseph in the quiet moments. As a result, Mary’s story gets told to us rather than shown, with her updating us with various “this is what I’m feeling now” lines.

The movie also makes odd choices when it comes to what they choose to keep or leave out from the original story. Iconic scenes like the angels announcing Jesus to the shepherds are cut or rushed, meaning a lot of the parts that are most meaningful to believers (that’s part of the point of an adaptation like this) don’t make it on screen.

Other options are less just disappointing and more uncomfortable. In this version, Mary never gives her consent to the angel to give birth to Jesus, which she does in The Bible, and — given the world we live in today — that’s something that would have been really good to leave in.

The movie feels like light entertainment meant to amuse children, but has very little meat to it. Contrast that to seasonal family movies like “A Muppet Christmas Carol” or “Home Alone,” which are hilarious when they need to be, but also take the time for serious and heartfelt moments that make you cry.

For a faith-based movie, it lacks sacredness. It’s a problematic oversight. To the degree that making movies at all that you would call “faith-based” is at all a meaningful category worth pursuing, it’s that these movies somehow glorify God and express why he’s worthy of worship. Because the jokes never stop in this film, there’s no time for reverence to develop.

If you’re not moved to worship God in a faith-based movie, then I have to ask: What’s the point?

Hopefully, with the growth of the faith-based film industry, we’ll eventually get a Nativity movie that has the magic to become a new Christmas season staple. Perhaps “The Chosen” will add enough new footage to their Christmas shorts eventually to put together a full feature film. They’ve already combined their last two shorts into a longer special that they’re releasing this December — and I would personally love for them to turn it into a legit movie. Perhaps the crowd-funded animated “Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby” will be a big winner.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep waiting.

“Journey To Bethlehem” is available exclusively in theaters starting Nov. 10.

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