Unwrapping The Journey to Bethlehem: An Honest Review
Am I the only one who walked out of the theater not raving about Journey to Bethlehem?
I hesitate to say anything critical about the film, as the comments on social media are glowing unless you dig deep. Even Kirk Cameron gave a rave review of the film, and recently, Dallas Jenkins, director of The Chosen, endorsed it. I agree with Dallas about supporting these types of films, but we must put the same measuring stick up against the production as we would a secular movie. At the same time, be more critical because most of the audience has a preconceived idea about Christian films -- they are weak, cheesy, lacking story and quality. I will be addressing these elements in my review.
I will admit many people are listening to others and not going because of another person's opinion. I will be honest: I read and shared a review and was not going to go. But then, after a few comments from some people saying that I was being judgmental when I had not seen the movie, I decided they were right, and I went.
My daughter and I went to a Saturday Matinee the first weekend the film opened. The theater was next to empty – a mother and her five-year-old daughter, an older couple, a woman who sat on her phone the whole time, and my daughter and me. The next to empty theaters is an ongoing comment I have read on social media. I wonder how many people could love the movie when the theaters seems empty.
Here is my honest review:
“Journey To Bethlehem“ is a musical version of the greatest story ever told with all the bells and whistles of a Broadway play or Disney live-action film, sprinkled with some comedy and some Bob Fosse flash.
Costumes and Sets
The costumes were beautiful but were a mixture of the biblical period the story is set in and the medieval dress we have seen in many famous paintings. This is a detail that kept coming to my attention throughout the movie. I found it distracting at times but wrote it off as part of the license they were taking to tell the story. The same could be said of the sets, a lovely combination of the two periods. Taking this license may only bother some viewers or go unnoticed, but it could throw off a biblical historian, set designers who do their historical due diligence, or a viewer who needs this detail to be accurate. Overall, the sets were fantastic and added to the film's ambiance. The photography was excellent, especially the aerial shots during the songs in the desert.
The music, solos, and chorus routines were a highlight. Fiona Palomo, Young Mary, has a beautiful voice and stunning film presence. Her duet with Milo Manheim, Young Joseph, is captivating and moves the story along despite the chase-like dance around a large fountain, which is another element of musicals – so I can excuse it.
The opening song with Mary and her sisters sets the tone for the movie as we are ushered into a Broadway musical-style opening number. Still, it also struck me like a “cop-rock” or “Glee” number set in downtown Nazareth instead of the halls of a high school or precinct.
Manheim’s solo about what he should do about Mary and the Immaculate Conception is haunting but a little on the cheesy side. Mary is dressed in red, fully veiled, and sitting with a shameful posture, while Joseph’s good and evil sides argue about whether he should stay with Mary. It has an extraordinary Broadway musical element that would make sense on a stage but looks like too much on film – though it is a plausible depiction of the struggle Joseph must have gone through in believing Mary’s story and how the world would view it. Again, all these things are wrapped musically and could be a turn-off for some viewers.
Antonio Banderas was a great Herod - very evil. At one point, I couldn’t keep looking at him on the screen in the close-ups. It was creepy. His song on power and being King firmly set his character in stone as cruel, self-absorbed, and power-hungry. It went on a bit longer than needed – it made its point. I wanted it to end and move on.
The story is not about Herod; it’s about Mary, Joseph, and the journey to the birth. It is also not about Herod’s son, who has Daddy issues and is never mentioned in the Bible, but this character was created to meet a need in the fictional creation of the story. Joel Smallbone from King and Country, who plays Antipater, Herod’s first son, does his best with a character without scriptural basis. Antipater's character is created to fulfill the fictional storyline. His song gives his character flesh, but the storyline is not true and must give a reason for his existence in the story.
Biblically, the three kings were not at the birth, only the shepherds. This story blends the kings and shepherds with the angel's appearance, de-emphasizing the shepherds and the angel's birth announcement. This scene flew by, making me feel they were trying to wrap the story up and bury the lead – Glory to the highest, peace on earth, goodwill toward men – the Messiah was born -- moving along. I didn’t realize the girl with the dreadlocks was a shepherd until they got to the barn where the baby Jesus was sleeping.
This brings me to the overall storyline - liberties were taken, and biblical details were rearranged to suit the recreated story. Mary going on her own to tell Joseph and his family about the baby would not be historically plausible. Mary’s family would have handled the situation, and going by herself was taking the modernization of her character too far. Mary's father was too flighty and a dislikable version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Mary wants to be a teacher, and her father teaching her Torah is a possibility, but as a woman, she would quietly share her knowledge, and historically, being a teacher was out of the question for a woman other than teaching her own children or family. Was Mary's wanting to be a teacher an inserted modern feminist detail to convince us she would go to Joseph’s family alone? She would have been stoned if she had arrived at Joseph’s house alone without family counsel to deliver this type of news. Okay, it’s a musical comedy, but it still felt off. While being sent to Elizabeth to avoid talk is plausible, I don’t think Joseph and Mary getting married during that visit would have happened. Scripturally, I always thought this visit to Elizabeth occurred after Joseph and Mary had married. I may be mistaken, or it is not biblically clear. Again, the families would have handled the marriage, and the knowledge of the baby kept quiet.
The story around Herod and his son’s involvement is constructed to fit the recreated narrative or fictional license the writers and directors have taken. Yes, Herod was a brutal King and did horrible things out of jealousy because he feared this new king would steal his throne. Still, the reality of what historically happened was conveniently moved around, and the fact that we know the story made it unsettling. Herod is mean and a jerk – this guy could do anything, and we know, as believers, he did. I become concerned when these biblical details are rearranged or changed. The unbelieving viewer attending the production is given a story that is not true and walks out of the theater, thinking it is true. Hopefully, they open a Bible to get the real details.
The fact that the three wise men or "wise guys" are the comedy relief removes the regal side of their characters that, as children, we learned to love. They were just dumb at times -- though I could sit and listen to Geno Seger as Baltazar's deep, resonating voice all day long. Most of the funny lines and antics were given to the Kings – it fits the musical comedy formula – they are the comedy relief - I get it.
I disliked the comedy bit of Gabrielle practicing what he would say and then banging his head on the rafter as he went into Mary’s room to deliver God’s message. Gabrielle is not a buffoon. He is delivering God’s message. Why would he practice or hit his head? Maybe the writers thought because Jesus practiced the Sermon on the Mount in The Chosen, they thought they could get away with Gabrielle practicing his message. I didn’t buy it. Many people didn’t buy it in The Chosen either. Giving Gabrielle a pratfall move failed. I like my angels to be wise, powerful, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. These two flaws took away Gabrielle's majesty.
The donkey pacing outside the barn while Mary gave birth was silly. Eliminating the Innkeeper was a lost opportunity for story development and increased tension. The scene of Mary running away from the soldiers and the donkey saving the day was a cute idea, but not how we know the story. I wanted a grumpy Innkeeper. I wanted them to stop giving reasons for Herod's son's character.
The film announcement that they took liberties with the story at the end should have been in the beginning, and maybe even the director preparing the audience for a lighthearted musical twist on the Christmas story. I would have been prepared for what was coming. If it was at the beginning, I missed it.
Theater and musical lovers will go and see Journey to Bethlehem repeatedly. If you are taking your children to this movie, please tell them the scriptural story so they know the context and the truth. I would even take them in December to see The Chosen Christmas – The Messengers and The Shepherd, which leans more toward the real Christmas story than what is depicted in this musical extravaganza.
My final words:
I will not add this movie to my must-watch Christmas movie list. Many friends loved this version of the Christmas story and returned to the theater to see it, while others were entertained, but once was enough. I am in the latter category. While I agree with Dallas Jenkins’s recent post that Christian film projects should be supported, we must hold the same measuring stick up against these projects. Reviewing Christian works and pointing out the weaknesses or missteps present areas in the revamped Christian film and television production community where they can improve and give their audience quality entertainment with a Christian worldview, not a cringe-worthy theater experience. Dallas Jenkins has set the bar high in this category with The Chosen.
Journey to Bethlehem is a quality musical comedy production with some hiccups, in my opinion, which keeps it from being a classic Christmas film everyone will want to watch yearly.
To me, readers and those who made it to the end of my review: If what I have said here is enough for you not to buy a ticket and go to the theater, then so be it. I don't want you to waste your money. But if you don't want to depend on another person's opinion on their viewing experience and purely seeking entertainment, I highly encourage you to check it out in theaters or wait for it to be added to your favorite streaming platform.