In time for the Holiday season, alternative studio Affirm Films released Journey to Bethlehem to a modest box office and relatively favorable mainstream media reviews (except the New York Times who gave it a bad review seemingly on the basis that the critic just doesn’t believe in the premise of Christianity). The movie is a light hearted musical retelling of the traditional nativity, leaning heavily on an embellished (but not Biblically contrary) love story between Joseph and Mary played by Milo Manheim (Zombies) of Disney stardom and Fiona Palomo who had a recurring spot on the very popular show for teens, Outerbanks.
Releasing so far before Thanksgiving seems to have hampered the financial success of the film’s run, but it’s likely that the film will buck tradition and make more money on later weekends as Christmas draws closer.
The film features some major stars including Manheim and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) as Herod keeping on trend with other alternative studios seeking to bring high quality movies to the American public without bending the knee to mainstream studio politics.
The Conservative Critic asks: Is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value? And is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: Journey to Bethlehem
Overall rating: Christmas homerun
The classic Christmas story of the Nativity told through a colorful, joyful and refreshingly modern musical lands exactly where it was airming. Journey to Bethlehem artfully uses the talented and charismatic power of Manheim as a handsome Joseph (handsome Joseph is a long tradition see Oscar Isaac as Joseph in the serious and more realist The Nativity Story) and the musical credibility of King and Country member Joel Smallbone who assisted in writing the music and played Herod’s son Antipater, performing the best song in the entire show (In My Blood – check it out here).
The format of the film was very much like a filmed stage production and the simplicity of that choice made the simple, sweet and fun story work in a way it wouldn’t have had they overplayed their hand. The costumes featured several high quality textile pieces and were unique for the story while still paying fan service to the traditional idea of Mary and Joseph.
Is it entertaining: Delightful
The characters are singing and dancing and making jokes. Mary is imagined into a sort of ‘Belle’ like Disney Princess version of the true story and Joseph is a charming young prince type in his own right. The Magi are kept as “three kings” per the tradition of the song and provide ample comedic relief along with a slightly personified Donkey. Mary and Joseph tackle traditional musical style songs and romantic choreography while Herod and Antipater break out some slightly edgier rock and roll as the story “bad guys.” It’s nothing but fun and fanciful and everything the story of the Nativity deserves to be which is joyous and bright.
The content is a little too advanced for the littlest of kids. It’s not that anything is handled indelicately, it’s that it might be just a little boring for kids who haven’t learned much about the bible yet. A little girl watching with me got pretty bored midway through. But school aged kids and above will enjoy it just as well as any other fun and light musical but with the added benefit of Christmas.
Does it have artistic/intellectual value: Wonderful original music and artistic vision
The music for the movie is pitch perfect. Many filmies have criticized the trend in Disney musicals to “Lin Manuel Mirandaify” all their movies (regardless of his involvement) so that all the music sounds essentially the same. While I’ll defend Miranda until I’m blue, this musical took a completely different stylistic approach and should be an example of how to do a musical right. The teenage lovebirds, Mary and Joseph, have several numbers all giving traditional musicals. They both have beautiful voices but Manheim really shines in ‘the ultimate deception’ scene (check out the music here). The rock music performed by the ‘bad guys’ gives the film a fresh and modern feel without threatening some kind of eye roll worthy moment with Mary laying down rhymes or something.
The musical mixes original songs with classic Christmas hymns playing to the very strength of the film which is that it is completely unafraid to celebrate Christian Christmas as it is known and beloved.
Antonio Banderas does a sort of drunk oafish version of King Herod that teeters ever so fabulously close to camp without falling over the other side.
The costuming was especially beautiful. The textile quality was notable. The fabrics seemed lucious and heavy. Particularly the dress of the young women was elaborate and intricate and even stylish without ever taking away from historical context or culture. The colors were bright and joyful. For once, Journey to Bethlehem gave us a nativity that was far from drab but instead something beautiful.
As musicals do, it can’t resist dipping a bit into schmaltz occasionally. There is a scruffy shepherd singing silent night that should have been cut and Mary’s big scene at the end was heavy handed. But it’s not outside the heritage of family musicals to have some slightly insipid moments. The bulk majority of the movie was high quality and not more sacharine than a Christmas musical should be.
Is it liberal propaganda: Christian heritage fully celebrated
There are never too many stories about Jesus Christ in the marketplace. Not only is the Christian nativity the foundation of Christmas itself, but Journey to Bethlehem does not hide from the celebratory nature of the event. For the first time, the nativity is made to feel like Christmas. The story feels exciting, pretty and wrapped up in a bow just like Christmas. Christianity is a religion worth celebrating and uplifting with joy and pride. This musical does exactly that and it makes no apologies for the beliefs and origins of it’s people. It presents faith in its sparkliest form.
If this pure, joyful, Bible story is not conservative enough for you I really don’t know what would be. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, there is nothing more wholesome and family values than a nice story about a charming boy and a bookish girl falling in love, getting married and bringing into the world an alternative king to the kings of this earth. Complete with songs and dance.
Journey to Bethlehem is the perfect Christmas treat for the family and a refreshingly merry take on the Nativity Story.