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Journey to Bethlehem

Rating: PG

Genre: Action/Adventure, Animation, Christian, Musical, Romance

Directed by: Adam Anders

Writers: Adam Anders and Peter Barsocchini

Release Date: November 7, 2023

Runtime: 98 Minutes

Cast: Fiona Palomo as Mary; Milo Manheim as Joseph; Joel Smallbone as Antipater; Antonio Banderas as Herod; Geno Segers as Balthazar; Rizwan Manji as Gaspar; Omid Djalili as Melchior; Antonio Cantos as Joachim; Maria Pau Pigem as Ana; Stephanie Gil as Rebekah; Moriah as Deborah; Lecrae as Gabriel

Review Courtesy: PluggedIn
Reviewer: Paul Asay

It’s the same old story: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy and girl get engaged. Girl discovers that she’s carrying the Son of God. Boy— Ah. So maybe this story isn’t quite a cookie-cutter romance after all. This one involves quite a bit more sand than your standard Drew Barrymore flick. It’s got ancient prophecies and power-hungry, sleep-deprived kings; angels of the Lord and rather feisty donkeys. It’s the Nativity story. And even if this version looks and feels a little different than most renditions do, I’m sure most of you know the story well.

And it is a love story: the love between a man and a woman; the love between a king and his throne; and most importantly, the love that our Creator has for His creation—and how that love manifested in one cosmos-changing gift.

And let’s not forget all the song-and-dance numbers!

Journey to Bethlehem is an imaginative take on a very familiar story—and it adds some dramatic wrinkles to the characters therein. There will be some Christians who will oppose the movie’s extrabiblical flourishes on principle, and I get that. But as we dive into this section, I’ll be treating the movie’s characters as just that: characters. In other words, they’re creative constructs that stand a bit apart from the real people they’re based on. The Mary we meet here is intelligent, a bit headstrong and deeply faithful. Her parents have arranged a marriage for her with someone she’s never even met, and Mary doesn’t like that one little bit. She wants to be a teacher, not a helpmate to a stranger. But even if she’s angry that her parents are pushing into a marriage she doesn’t want (and makes her feelings known about that), she’s also mindful of the respect and obedience she owes her parents. She doesn’t like the decision, but she accepts it.

Joseph (who’s much younger than the one we often see in Christian tradition) also wasn’t given a choice. But he warms up to Mary quickly. Good thing, because their engagement gets off to a rocky start.

First, he must fight (somewhat literally, in the movie’s imaginative setting) with his own skepticism regarding Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Then he must protect his small family: He finds a safe place for Mary to give birth. Shortly thereafter, he plots a hasty trip to Egypt to escape the evil clutches of King Herod. Throughout it all, Joseph shows himself to be a resourceful, protective an incredibly resilient guy.

The Wise Men—three of them, as tradition dictates, named Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior—do their part to protect Mary, Joseph and especially their new baby. And the holy family receives help from an unexpected quarter as well.

Journey to Bethlehem is, as you might expect, an inherently spiritual story. And even though this version of the Nativity is filled with songs and dances and jokes, director Adam Anders and his cohorts tried to honor the story’s holy message.

“While taking some creative license, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the message of the greatest story ever told,” moviegoers will read at the end.

Mary and Joseph may feel like characters from a musical romcom. But they’ve clearly been given a sacred task: bringing the Son of God into the world.

The movie leaves no doubt about who the true Father of Jesus is. Just as we read in the Bible, Mary is visited by Gabriel (who practices what he’s going to tell Mary before greeting her). “God has chosen you to have a Son,” the angel tells her, the “King of all kings.” And when Mary says that’s impossible, Gabriel answers, “Nothing is impossible when it’s God’s will.”

Gabriel also says that Mary is “more blessed than any other woman.” We’re told that it’s because of her great faith that she was so favored. She reads the Scriptures. She knows the Law. Still, she’s frustrated about why God didn’t clue other folks in. No one believes her story, after all, and her own family ships her off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house in shame. Elizabeth doesn’t doubt, though. The older woman was the recipient of her own miracle pregnancy: We know from the Bible that Gabriel visited Elizabeth’s husband, a Jewish priest named Zechariah, and told him that Elizabeth was going to have a very special baby named John—a big surprise, considering how old both of them were. Zechariah was struck dumb after that conversation.

He still can’t speak when Mary comes to visit. When Mary expresses her bewilderment, even her exasperation, about how this unexpected pregnancy has impacted her, she asks Elizabeth, “When will I understand?”

Elizabeth smiles. “If my husband could talk, he would say, Patience is a good companion for faith.”

Mary’s not the only one expectantly awaiting the Son of God’s arrival. The Magi from the East see the star in the sky and begin their travels immediately (ultimately arriving very shortly after Jesus is born). But they need some other “ancient scrolls” to narrow down the exact location of where this divine King will be born, so they go to Herod’s palace.

Naturally, Herod’s not too keen on another king being born in his realm, divine or no. So he dispatches his son, Antipater, to take care of the matter. “It should not be difficult to locate an unwed peasant girl claiming to carry the child of a Hebrew God,” Antipater sniffs. Also worth noting: Herod sings a song about the joys of being a king, which includes lyrics that narcissistically echo those from the Lord’s Prayer (which is yet to be written, but it neatly tells viewers of Herod’s own self-aggrandizement). “Mine is the kingdom/Mine is the power/Mine is the glory forever!” Herod sings. He clearly sees himself as worthy of worship (and says as much).

Herod’s throne is set in front of a gigantic lion’s head, incidentally, its mouth open in a snarl. The statue signifies his intimidating power and kingship. But the film itself may embrace a double meaning, given that Jesus would later be called the Lion of Judah. And Herod’s throne is set right in front of the lion’s mouth, as if it was about to be devoured. We hear a reference to Ecclesiastes 4:12 during a betrothal ceremony, with the audience being told that a threefold cord is not easily broken. Marriage is referred to as a step of faith. Someone is told, “King or peasant, one day we will all bend the knee” to this new King. Antipater confesses that he once worshiped his father like a god. We see Jewish symbols and rites. Marriage is called a “divine institution.”

A critical aspect of the movie—as was the case with the real Nativity story—is the suspicion that Mary had sex with someone other than her betrothed. That would’ve been a huge issue back in the day, and Journey to Bethlehem brings that aspect of the story home. Mary’s father feels that the family has been shamed. Joseph’s parents forbid him from having anything to do with his fiancée. And Joseph himself—at least the part of him who’s skeptical of Mary’s incredible story—feels betrayed by Mary as well.

But Journey to Bethlehem also speculates what the early romance between Mary and Joseph might’ve looked like.

Mary is not thrilled with her arranged marriage to a man she’s never even seen. But when she meets a young flirt at the market, she makes it clear that she’s not available (though she’s also both flattered and perhaps a wee bit attracted to the guy). The man—even when he knows that she’s betrothed—continues to flirt, and he even buys her a fig. “It will be my gift to a beautiful bride.” Mary ultimately stuffs the fig in his face.

[Spoiler Warning] Turns out that the guy is also betrothed. In fact, the flirt is Joseph—which brings us to a curious ethical conundrum worthy of a 1950s romantic musical. When Mary discovers that Joseph and the flirt in the marketplace were one and the same, she’s pretty furious. Joseph was taken, too—and yet he flirted with a female stranger when he knew that he was unavailable. That’s practically cheating on her! But Joseph points out that he was flirting with his future wife, so no harm done, right?

And that sets the tone for the relationship we see throughout the film. Joseph seems deeply and madly in love with Mary (whom he officially marries in part to throw Roman investigators off their trail). Mary largely treats her engagement and marriage to Joseph as a duty until the very end. Even when they officially marry (with the mute Zechariah presiding), Mary turns her face from Joseph so he plants the traditional kiss on her cheek. But as she sees what a dutiful, conscientious protector Joseph is, Mary’s heart warms. And the film ends with the two kissing gently on the lips.

Herod leers at a couple of female servants as he walks (and sings) through a palace hall. As part of an unexpectedly warm (but heterosexual) greeting, a man kisses another on both cheeks.

When Joseph first learns of Mary’s pregnancy, he’s of two minds about that matter. That inner conflict plays out in an imaginative battle (set to music) between two versions of Joseph. They punch and kick during the musical battle.

A protective donkey knocks a couple of people down. We hear capital punishments ordered. An angel hits his head on a too-short doorway. We hear how Mary’s pregnancy puts her as risk for stoning.

As you likely know, Herod will do anything he can to snuff out this rival king. He sends his son, Antipater, to track down the mother. And when that looks like a dead end, he commands Antipater, “Take your men to Bethlehem and kill every pregnant woman and baby you find. Problem solved.”

Antipater suggests instead that Herod acquiesce to having a census taken in his realm, as Caesar Augustus asked him to do. The census, he tells Herod, “allows soldiers to search every home and count every head.” (Those who know the story know that Herod did make good on his bloody threat after Joseph, Mary and Jesus were safely on their way to Egypt.)

None, but the film does include a joking feint toward the word “a–.”

Herod enjoys his wine. We see him drinking it—and we may see the effects of him drinking too much of it.

Herod also has some pretty bad dreams and suffers from insomnia. Melchior suggests that myrrh is a wonderful cure for sleeplessness. Gaspar, meanwhile, positions frankincense as cutting-edge aromatherapy.

After the wise men come near the end of their long journey, Melchior frets that he’s in no condition to see Jesus. “My clothes smell of sheep dung,” he says. “My skin smells of sheep dung. This whole Earth smells of sheep dung. But tonight, I meet the Son of God. This is just perfect.” (He later apologizes to someone for his smell. “I have a few hygiene issues right now,” he explains.)

Melchior also loves to eat—a trait the film plays as comedy, but it might remind some of the sin of gluttony.

What’s the reason for the season? Jesus, of course. Every priest, pastor and faithful Christian will tell you that. And, of course, the focus should be on the Son of God, right? In the Bible, everyone wants to see the Christ child—even those who mean Him harm. In Nativity displays, all eyes are on the manger. Think a newborn baby snags the spotlight during family reunions? Imagine a newborn who’ll save the universe.

But in stories about the Nativity, our focus is pulled elsewhere, and understandably so. Because Jesus doesn’t have a lot of lines in this stage of His life, our attention is drawn to those parents. We wonder what they must’ve thought about that stable-based miracle. And maybe we wonder what their lives were like, before and after.

In Nativity scenes and classic paintings, Mary and Joseph look so serene, so peaceful. And yet, given the chaos and danger around them, they were likely anything but.

During Easter, we witness Jesus’ divinity—the soul-saving power of His sacrifice and resurrection. But during Christmas, we’re given an opportunity to think about His humanity—because we meet His human parents.

Journey to Bethlehem is one of the most unusual Nativity stories you’ll see. Mary sings about arranged marriages. Roman soldiers dance. Herod (played by Antonio Banderas) glowers and leers, and, let’s be honest, hams it up, too. Journey to Bethlehem is the Nativity story crossed with High School Musical. And for some, this fanciful telling will be just too fanciful to embrace. Anyone who thinks The Chosen went too far in its extra-biblical imaginings ... well, just wait ‘til you see a Broadway-style dance number in an ancient Judean marketplace.

But for me, it works, and I’ll tell you why.

As it opens the first chapter on what the movie itself calls “the greatest story ever told,” Journey to Bethlehem allows its camera to linger on two youngsters who had big dreams of their own. Mary, a lover of Scripture, wanted to be a teacher. Joseph wistfully wishes he could invent stuff. The two are thrown together and given not a single say in the matter. Their reactions aren’t that far removed from what ours might be: anger, confusion, exasperation, even a little bit of heartbreak. Mary moans about this drastic turn in her life. “Is this what I’m chosen for?” She sings. “I thought I was meant for more.”

And, of course, she was. God had far bigger plans for her than she could possibly have imagined. As I said at the outset, the Nativity has always been a love story—the love of a Creator for His creation. But Journey to Bethlehem reminds us that there’s another love in play: the love of a man for a woman, of (eventually) a woman for a man. And then there’s the love they both have for their very special, very human, very divine Son.

We can never fully understand God’s love for us—its depth and breadth and staggering power. But the love found in a family? Yeah, we can grasp that. And through the Nativity’s very human avatars—even those that sing and dance—we get just a hint of God’s love for us.

Parents, get practical information from a biblical worldview to help guide media decisions for your kids! Learn more – Click HERE

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.