Diversions…No classic this, but great cast lends vibrancy to ‘The Star’

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The hero of this animated comedy is a donkey named Bo. Bo and his friend Dave the Dove and a sheep named Ruth and others band together and have wacky adventures in their effort to warn the Virgin Mary, who’s on the road to Bethlehem with Joseph, that the agents of Herod the Great are out to get them.

Funny versions of The Nativity go back in the Western tradition at least as far as The Second Shepherd’s Play in the 1500s. I also remember a surprisingly satirical holiday TV special called The Night the Animals Talked back in the early ‘70s that focused on the creatures around the manger, including Mary and Joseph’s goodhearted donkey.

Even so, you may not always believe what you’re seeing in this Sony Animation release—the standard cute talking animal template, complete with an underdog (underdonkey?) hero who longs to see the wider world, played out against this sort of pious tableau. It’s easy to imagine neither the secular nor the devout being altogether comfortable with it.

This movie’s camp reaches its highest level, perhaps, not with the critters but with its depiction of The Annunciation. The green-eyed, freckled Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of TV’s Jane the Virgin), who talks like a Disney Channel heroine, receives word from the Angel that she’s to be the Messiah’s mother with less emotion than a contemporary American teenager might show at the news that she’d won tickets to a Niall Horan concert. “Thank you,” she says mildly, and then, to herself “Do I say thank you?”

The most peculiar thing about this peculiar movie is that it works, or at least it worked for me. The high-ticket voice actors, led by Stephen Yuen as Bo, Aidy Bryant as Ruth and Keegan-Michael Key as the endearing Dave, create warm characterizations. I’m not kidding when I say high-ticket, by the way: other beasts are voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth and—gasp!—Oprah herself, as a camel. Even Christopher Plummer lends his sinister purr to old Herod.

The Star is no classic, but this cast makes it vibrant, and the story is about going to trouble for others, putting their needs ahead of your own. It’s a kitschy, sometimes borderline embarrassing movie, and a more genuinely sweet one than I’ve seen in a while.

Still in theaters:

Murder on the Orient ExpressSidney Lumet’s tautly made 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, with Albert Finney as Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot, is a favorite of mine, and I admit I saw no pressing need to remake it. But remade it has been, in a manner sufficiently different from the original that it can be enjoyed on its own terms.

The new version is directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also assumes the role of Poirot. As before, a shady character gets bumped off in a sleeping car of the famed luxury line, which used to run all the way from Istanbul to Paris. The train is derailed by an avalanche somewhere in Croatia, and Poirot, who had been hoping for a quiet holiday, is pressed into service to identify the guilty party from among the shifty types aboard before the trip is back on track.

The cast ranges from Johnny Depp to Judi Dench, Josh Gad to Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe to Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley to Leslie Odom, Jr. to Michelle Pfeiffer, among others, and they let it rip. Offsetting this is Branagh’s impressively reserved, melancholy turn as Poirot.

As director, Branagh works in his characteristically flamboyant style, sweeping from one melodramatic flourish to the next, even adding in some fights and gunplay. This won’t be to the taste of every Christie aficionado, but I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed screenwriter Michael Green’s distaste for the casual racism that Christie, to judge from her books, would have regarded as a given.

But the real stars, perhaps, of this Orient Express are, first, Branagh’s mesmerizing mustache, and second, the lushness of the production—cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, costumes by Alexandra Byrne, music by Patrick Doyle.

The movie may leave you in the mood for a leisurely holiday by train.

 

The Star is rated PG; Murder on the Orient Express is rated PG-13. Both play at Harkins Tempe Marketplace, Harkins Chandler Fashion Center and other multiplexes Valleywide.

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