I really should have stuck to my original plan of just buying the soundtrack.
Why, you may ask? Because the musical numbers - with a few glaring exceptions - were the best part of this confused disaster of a movie.
There were a few genuinely good emotional or funny moments, all of which were promptly ruined with a "gotcha!" punchline or cringe-inducing dialogue that revoken the good feeling immediately after.
"Journey to Bethlehem" is a movie that is trying to be a live-action Prince of Egypt meets High School Musical, but turned out to be the worst parts of a mash-up between Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, a Hallmark Christmas Rom-Com, and Meet The Spartans.
None of the characters are the mythical figures I loved so much in other re-tellings of the Nativity Story, or during mandatory bible study in high school. They're cardboard cut-outs, one-note caricatures of what they should be.
There was a screen dedication at the end, acknowledging that the film-makers took extensive creative license, but attempted to stay true to the "most loved story of all time".
When you have to put a note in the movie defending yourself, rather than starting fights in the comments section of Rotton Tomatoes, you know you've messed up.
With that out of my system, let's dive right in.
While it's hard to comprehend the idea of someone not knowing the Nativity Story, (even by osmosis, given how it pops up literally everywhere in every non-Theocratic country as soon as the calendar flips over from November 30th) I'll summarise it anyway.
In the reign of King Herod, Mary, a young girl from the impoverished village of Nazareth, is betrothed to Joseph, a young carpenter descended from the line of David. Shortly after, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will give birth to a child who will be the Son of God. Joseph is at first shocked by this, but recieves his own visit from Gabriel, confirming Mary's claim. At some point, Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, who is also miraculously pregnant.
Rome calls a census, requiring every man and his family to travel to the land of his ancestors, which requires Joseph to return to Bethlehem, the City of David. Mary goes with him, and ends up giving birth in a stable, where shepards and three wise men come to bear witness and spread the word.
Herod is not pleased at the news of a new King, and orders the death of the infant Jesus, causing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt, and a massacre of the young boy-infants of Bethlehem, commemorated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
- Much like the Star Wars Prequels, these were some amazing actors, hampered by bad dialogue and worse direction. It's a shame, because I would have liked to see them go on to greater things, but with this as their breakout roles, it's unlikely.
- I hope the Choreographers and Songwriters go on to bigger and better things, because they honestly stopped me from walking out of the theatre on more than one occasion. The selling point of a good musical number is that is doesn't feel forced when the characters suddenly break into song and dance, and that, at lease, the movie pulled off beautifully.
- Some minor characters, like Prince Antipater (Herod's son) and Mary's family, got some unexpected character development that I quite appreciated.
- I liked the obvious Jewish imagry, like the Menorah in Mary's home, and Mary's discussion with her mother, Anne, about her father teaching Mary the Torah. That's something that often gets left out of Nativity Story adaptations, for probably-obvious reasons.
- The hand-holding. A king who orders the massacre of infants and toddlers, unprovoked, is obviously a bad guy. We don't need an entire song dedicated to him singing about how evil he is, and how he's going to torture that guy, kill that other guy, etc... just for funsies, obviously.
- There's plenty of conflict in the early days of Mary and Joseph's betrothal; there is no reason to add more just to hit the usual rom-com points.
- While the bible itself doesn't mention what Mary thought of getting married, various adaptations have treated her as apprehensive, indifferent, or nervously excited. This Mary is emphatically anti-marriage, but it feels more like a modern talking point than any of the (many, justifiable) reasons a young woman might hesitate to marry in the late BCE.
- (There's a lot of anti-marriage rhetoric scattered through the movie, actually. I wonder if one of the scriptwriters was going through a messy divorce...)
- Similarly, Joseph comes off as self-centered and far more doubtful than the (again, justified) assumption that Mary was unfaithful. Even in moments when it's clear that Mary is scared and in need of reassurance, he manages to make it all about him. It's like he's quoting a Reddit post that's about to come down with a firm and unanimous YTA judgement.
- Even when he gets his dream from Gabriel, there's still the impression that he isn't doing this because he believes, he just doesn't want to lose Mary.
- One of the most important themes about the Nativity story is Mary's faith and consent. Her pure faith is part of why she was chosen. She might have questioned why she was chosen, but she never faltered in her faith that she was doing God's will. She consented to become betrothed to Joseph. Yes, she knew the risks of being pregnant and unmarried. Yes, she chose to be the mother of the Messiah anyway. Guess what is utterly missing in this movie...?
- Just... everything about the so-called Wise Men. They aren't wise in this version; they're pampered Hobby Historians who are desperately looking for proof to fit their conspiracy theory, and who probably started this journey on a drunken dare and were too far from home to just turn around once they'd sobered up.
- The humour. While the emotional moments still (mostly) hit as they should, the meant-to-be-funny moments didn't do much beyond making me question if the cost of an over-priced movie ticket was really worth staying in the cinema...
Oh, so much...
- Why this movie even got the green-light in the first place...
- It's comparatively minor, but Nazareth doesn't look like an impoverished village. In fact, it looks rather prosperous, with fine jewellery and brightly-dyed clothing. There's no hint that anyone lacks for food or other resources.
- Prince Antipater getting a solo number about how he regrets the things he's done in his father's name and lives in fear that he will be his father's next victim... only to turn around in front of a bunch of witnesses and do something that will definitely see him dead, instead of even attempting to be subtle.
- Herod as a cartoony bad guy. Yeah, he's not exactly a good person, but he's not the pure parody that this movie made him out to be, either
- Trying to make arguably one of the most spiritual stories in the world a teen rom-com
- The lack of any real sense of urgency, even during what should be extremely tense moments
Now that that's over, I'm off to watch The Nativity Story again in the hopes of purging this from my brain.