As it bounces from kooky slapstick to serene reverence, the animated Nativity story “The Star” shows that when it comes to the Bible, it’s usually better for filmmakers to stick to the source material.
When “The Star” stays close to the story of Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (voiced by Zachary Levi) — and how the Holy Spirit announced that she would bear a child, and how God spoke to Joseph to calm his doubts — it’s a graceful, sweet recounting of the birth of Jesus.
But that story isn’t going to pad out a feature-length movie or fill the shelves with licensed plush toys. The bulk of Carlos Kotkin’s script centers not on Mary and Joseph, but on Bo (voiced by Steven Yuen, formerly of “The Walking Dead”), a grain-mill donkey with big dreams of joining King Herod’s royal caravan. Egged on by his dove friend Dave (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), Bo breaks free of the miller’s barn and lives as a stray on the streets of Nazareth until he’s taken in by Mary.
Meanwhile, three wise men — whose camels are voiced by Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey — are traveling to bring gifts to “the new king.” They meet King Herod (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who sees this new king as a threat and sends a brawny silent assassin, whose menacing dogs are voiced by Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias, to find and kill the king the wise men seek.
Director Timothy Reckart, making his feature debut after getting an Oscar nomination for his 2012 short “Head Over Heels,” sets these different parties on the road. Mary and Joseph are heading to Bethlehem, with Bo and Dave following along and befriending a wayward sheep, Ruth (voiced by Aidy Bryant). The wise men and their camels are approaching Bethlehem from the east, with the assassin and his dogs close behind.
The pratfall humor of Bo and Dave’s misadventures may entertain younger viewers, but it feels at odds with the spirit (pardon the pun) of Jesus’ origins. That awkwardness is reflected in the toothlessly jokey dialogue, written with a mildness calculated not to offend the targeted Christian audience.
Propelled by innocuous Christmas carol covers — with Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey pulling double duty as voice actors and soundtrack singers — “The Star” passes by harmlessly toward its pretty tableau of Mary and Joseph holding their son in the manger. That may not be worth shelling out $9.50 at a multiplex, but it will someday make a decent Christmas gift, a movie parents can call up on Netflix to keep the kids entertained while they get the turkey cooked.
* * 1/2
A pleasant telling of the Nativity story is hampered by an emphasis on the animals around Mary and Joseph.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 17.
Rating • PG-13 for some thematic elements.
Running time • 86 minutes.