A Musical Rendition of the Christmas Story
Plenty of stories get retold on a regular basis in Hollywood. Classic works of literature are constantly being reimaged such as Dracula and A Christmas Carol. There are also many Biblical accounts that receive this treatment, as well as being persistently retold countless times in a variety of ways, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the story of Moses and Pharoh. While the Nativity story has been told countless times before, there haven’t been any mainstream musical adaptations of the birth of Jesus until now.
Stretching a Budget
Directed by Adam Anders in his feature-length directorial debut and written by Anders and Peter Barsocchini, Journey to Bethlehem is a musical retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph. As Mary navigates the literal task of carrying a substantial burden, Joseph, the man whom her parents have betrothed her to, is struggling between love and honor. All while jealous, King Herod is desperately grasping onto his crown and power.
In a world where studios are spending enormous budgets on dramas, such as $200 million on Killers of the Flower Moon, or increasing the budgets for blockbusters like $274 million on The Marvels, it’s great to see filmmakers able to make an enjoyable film on a moderate budget. While some of the costumes look cheap and homemade, the rest of the film was able to utilize its budget well. With many of the scenes being shot on location rather than implementing green-screen backgrounds, the sets looked better and were more immersive.
Along with its modest budget, the film was able to attract an impressive cast. Most notably, Academy Award nominee Antonio Banderas portrays King Herod, which is unexpected for an actor of his caliber. Banderas appears to have fun portraying Herod, as the character’s portrayal in the film is silly and over-the-top. Banderas makes what should be a ridiculous performance, based on the writing, into something entertaining and amusing. At the same time, Banderas is able to come off as cunning, cruel, and ruthless. The flip-flop between the silly nature of the character to the serious side could easily have come off as odd and uneven, due to the dramatic shift in tones. However, Banderas is able to blend the two sides together to make a believable performance.
A Cast of Likable Actors
As for the leads of the film, they were able to elevate their characters above what was provided on paper. Fiona Palomo stars as Mary and makes the character out to be more than simply the mother of Jesus.
She’s provided a slew of background and motivation for her involvement in the story, as well as demonstrating how she would be worthy of such an important task. Other interpretations tend to simplify Mary; however, the filmmakers were able to make her more complex and provide a nuance that demonstrated that there’s more to her character that’s worth exploring.
While all of the actors gave great performances, the stand out in the film is Milo Manheim as Joseph. Most adaptations of the Nativity story sideline Joseph and treat him as a non-essential aspect of the story, but Journey to Bethlehem was able to provide an arc that ropes him into the narrative better. While he’s not treated as the comic relief of the story, Joseph is given some of the better comedic moments. Manheim has great comedic timing and makes his scenes stand out even more. He’s also given a more interesting dilemma that portrays the conflict with which his character struggles. He isn’t shown to be simply following everything Mary tells him, but he also has a level of doubt that everything the people are saying about Mary is false. It all worked together to make the character more interesting than most other interpretations of the story.
Toeing the Line
Since this was a musical adaptation of the birth of Jesus, it was inevitable that there would be a certain level of cheesiness. The movie does have a slight playfulness that comes with its quirky personality, but it also balances it out with more serious and dramatic moments. For the most part, this balance of cartoony moments and dramatic elements made for a well-rounded film.
Some of the humor from the side characters were a little too ridiculous as if the filmmakers were trying to force humor into these sequences. The movie also has some odd ways of interpreting the Biblical story that were cringe-inducing. In some of the scenes, it took what could have been powerful moments and instead cut the tension to try and have what some would believe to be an epic sequence.
While not a perfect film, Journey to Bethlehem is a charming, joyful retelling of the timeless story. The inclusion of musical aspects made the story more whimsical than most other interpretations and added a fun energy to the mix. While struggling to know when to hold back in certain moments, it never held the rest of the movie back from being a potentially new Christmas tradition.
Journey to Bethlehem is currently playing in theaters.
Journey to Bethlehem (2023): Official Sony Pictures Trailer