By Katlynn Rossignol
On Thursday, October 26, Cedarville students had the opportunity to watch an early screening of “Journey to Bethlehem.” The film offers a new family-friendly musical that presents a comedic and fun interpretation of the Nativity story.
Mary has just been betrothed when her life is thrown into chaos by an angelic visitor proclaiming that she will give birth to the Son of God. Meanwhile, three wise men follow a star to guide them to the prophesied King of Judah and meet the tyrannical King Herod, who has been plagued by nightmares since the star’s appearance. Desperate to get rid of his nightmares and prevent the coming king, Herod orders that the child be searched for and killed. Each party must get to Bethlehem in time for the king’s birth, but who will reach him first?
Journey to Bethlehem was very entertaining to watch, providing solid story structure from start to finish. Most characters were simplistic, but their simplicity allowed the large cast to each get screen time and contribute to the story. The film’s pacing was quick and kept its momentum despite including 12 musical numbers that could have slowed it down.
The music genre embraced pop and contemporary Christian music. Songs like “In My Blood” were performed by For King and Country’s Joel Smallbone, and “Brand New Life” with Steven Curtis Chapman, feat. We The Kingdom. The music is bright and catchy, bringing variety while still meshing together. Its style is more reminiscent of movie musicals like “The Greatest Showman,” than Broadway or Sight and Sound musical numbers. Modern movie musicals emphasize pop vocals that can be autotuned and blended with the instrumentation, while stage musicals favor powerful lead singers that can belt over quieter instrumentation.
“Journey to Bethlehem” included fantastic performances from many well-known actors. Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim played the main characters, Mary and Joseph, who fell in love and hid from King Herod, played by Antonio Banderas. Joel Smallbone played Prince Antipater, who feared he would become like his father, King Herod. The three wise men, played by Geno Segers, Omid Djalili, and Rizwan Manji, served as comedic relief characters, bringing gifts to the prophesied king. Perhaps the movie’s most unique character was Fig, Mary’s donkey, performed by three different donkeys during production.
There was plenty of laughter during the “Journey to Bethlehem’s” showing. The jokes used quirky, character-driven humor that’s appropriate for all ages. Points of violence in the story were toned down to not frighten kids while still implying danger.
The characters relied heavily on modern tropes. Mary “isn’t like other girls.” She wanted to be a teacher and marry for love; instead, she was forced into an arranged marriage. But don’t worry, Joseph is quirky and awkward, too, and they fall in love during the movie’s adventure.
While the movie’s simple character dynamics kept the plot on track, it also buried it in tropes. Adapting the Nativity story with a character focus meant the writers had to add details that the Biblical text doesn’t provide. To keep it manageable with such a large cast, it’s clear they picked the most applicable tropes for each character.
“Journey to Bethlehem’s” dramatic approach to scenes was often overdone to the point of humor. Watching Joseph’s inner battle as a musical number was so absurd it was funny, even though it was supposed to be a serious character moment.
These scenes weren’t poorly made, but they were set up for failure because of the already-established comedy. If your angel made a bunch of jokes the last time we saw him, why would seeing him singing in the sky be serious? Quirky, awkward Joseph wasn’t properly set up for an inner turmoil battle.
Parts of the Nativity story were moved around or changed, such as the wise men being present at the birth or soldiers hunting down pregnant Mary. It seemed these changes were made to include as much of the story as possible into a single film and create a cohesive plot. The reconstruction of the story makes it fit nicely into an entertaining movie but also makes it wildly inaccurate.
“Journey to Bethlehem” is a lively musical starring a big-name cast that embraces comedic writing to form a wholesome and entertaining Christmas film. That being said, it also overuses tropes, fails to balance comedy with tension and is an inaccurate interpretation of the Nativity story.
For all of “Journey to Bethlehem’s” issues, it’s still a well-produced movie crafted with technical skill. Issues of poor storytelling and tropes permeate much of Christian media, but the times could be changing. New shows, such as “The Chosen,” are changing people’s perspective of Christian media for the better.
“Journey to Bethlehem’s” early showing was brought to campus with help from Scott Mills, a Cedarville Alumnus who works on the film’s marketing team. After the showing, Mills collected audience surveys and hosted a Q&A where he encouraged Cedarville students to lead the change to produce better Christian films.
“This has been a record year; there’s more than 40 [faith-driven] movies coming to theaters in 2023 – it’ll be the biggest box office number we’ve ever seen in faith movies,” said Mills. “If you are a filmmaker or someone who wants to get involved in movies, this is the time.”
“We need high-quality acting, we need high-quality production, and it’s you guys, your generation, that’s going to take that on and make that better. It’s taken many generations to get to where we even have movies like this. We want to see better movies, better acting, better quality, and that’s why you’re here at school to learn. But it’s up to you guys to make those movies strong because there’s a lot of opportunities coming to make content.”
“I’m excited for you guys to be at Cedarville,” said Mills. “To learn with a foundation of faith is super cool; I hope you embrace that. I’m excited for you [to] make content like this.”
Katlynn Rossignol is a sophomore Strategic Communications Major and A&E writer for Cedars. She loves arts and crafts, spending time with friends and watching superhero movies.
Images courtesy of Sony Affirm Films