The donkey that saved Christmas?

Recently, my wife and I watched The Star, last year’s imaginative retake on the Christmas story. It’s definitely well-meant, a sweet and uplifting animated tale that both kids and parents can enjoy together.

But is it the Christmas story?

Sort of.

The movie might better be titled The Donkey (and Dove and Sheep) That Saved Christmas. The main character is Bo, a young and smallish donkey stuck in the grind (literally) of working in the village mill. He longs to do something significant with his life, especially after he sees the star marking the birth of Jesus appear in the sky. With his best friend, a dove named Dave (see what they did there?), Bo dreams of joining the royal caravan.

Eventually, he escapes his brutal master and accidentally falls into the care of Mary and Joseph. You can pretty much guess what will happen from there. When Herod finds out from the magi that a new king has been born, he sends an assassin and his attack dogs to find and kill the baby and its mother. When Bo discovers the plan, he is torn between his imagined royal destiny and his loyalty to Mary, who is already on her way to Bethlehem with Joseph. Bo makes the heroic decision: he runs off to warn and save Mary. Adventures ensue, with a healthy dose of slapstick. But in the end, you know that Bo and his animal friends will save Mary and Christmas, even if the humans have no idea of the danger they’re in.

The writers show that they’ve read the gospel accounts. When we first see Joseph, for example, he’s waiting for Mary to arrive, because she’s been away helping her cousin Elizabeth. That biblical detail doesn’t usually make it into the various retellings of the story. And while angelic visitations are always difficult to portray, here they are treated with appropriate reverence.

Naturally, any retelling that includes heroic talking animals has to take some liberties to follow feel-good script conventions. New and kid-friendly characters are inserted as needed, including a sheep named Ruth who left her flock to follow the star. (“Bo,” by the way, is short for “Boaz.” Boaz and Ruth? Hmm.)  The assassin reliably gets his comeuppance, while through Bo’s compassion, his attack dogs get their come-to-Jesus moment (again, literally). And as Bo himself finally realizes, he has fulfilled his destiny: without knowing it, he has carried a king.

There are plenty of places to dicker, of course. The storyline follows the typical mashing together of the timelines of Matthew and Luke in a way that places everyone together in a stable; Mary’s response to the angel’s pronouncement lacks appropriate gravitas; Joseph and Mary seem more like contemporary Americans than first century Jews, and so on. None of this need be problematic for Christian families, though, provided that children are helped in age-appropriate ways to understand what the Bible actually says.

Part of that, I would hope, is that all of us, parents and children alike, would remember to appreciate what the day truly represents. It is neither, as the magi’s camels debate in the movie, a birthday party nor a baby shower. It is far, far more than that, as we’ll see in this Sunday’s Advent post.