Journey to Bethlehem, a musical retelling of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, dully plods along on a wave of cheap production and unmemorable songs. It’s one thing to criticize a film for simply retelling a story that’s been told thousands of times before, quite literally in this case, but it’s another thing entirely to parse a movie that takes said narrative and adds absolutely nothing new of interest. Every addition made by director and co-writer Adam Anders is more of a subtraction to the greater whole, and by the end of Journey to Bethlehem, all but the most faithful with lowest moviegoing standards will be left wondering why they bothered in the first place.
Mary (Fiona Palomo) learns she’s pregnant with the son of God, and it takes some convincing to get her betrothed, Joseph (Milo Manheim) to believe it. The greedy and arrogant King Herod (Antonio Banderas) gets wind of the impending birth and uses the guise of Caesar’s mandated census to track down Mary and Joseph and stop the child from becoming a threat to the throne. Three wise men (Geno Segers, Omid Djalili, Rizwan Manji) set out to follow the stars and bring gifts to the future king. You probably know the rest.
Only this time, some creative liberties have been taken with the story in Journey to Bethlehem, something that prompts a bizarre disclaimer before the closing credits roll and before the filmmakers pop up with a personal message and QR code that can take theatre patrons to a site where they can buy more tickets for future screenings. But the main and most obvious change to the pre-nativity story is the addition of wall to wall songs, which, if one thinks about the number of church plays, stage musicals, and midnight masses people have attended in the past 2,023 years, also isn’t a new idea.
For Journey to Bethlehem to work in such a form, all it has to do is be snappy, memorable, inspiring, and the songs have to be strong. Journey to Bethlehem is none of those things, and as a primer on one of The Bible’s most beloved chapters, it’s only memorable because of how astoundingly boring the whole thing is. Anders’ background is largely musical already, having worked on High School Musical, Glee, and Rock of Ages, and he attempts to apply those same toe tapping sensibilities here, but on a dollar store budget.
The look of Journey to Bethlehem is glaringly cheap for a story and chosen medium that lend themselves quite naturally to spectacle. Some of the film’s biggest numbers have to rely on basic choreography to keep the viewer’s attention from drifting around the frame and realizing that set is only a small handful of trees and some dirt. Castles and homes look like they’ve been cobbled together from used parts purchased, loaned, or pilfered from other productions that were done using them. And outside of Banderas – who can barely be asked to do more than sit still or gently walk around, even during his big musical number – there has been no money spent on finding actors with charisma or star power. Palomo is decent, and Manheim is quite good, but they can’t elevate something that seems literally and figuratively held together through the power of prayer.
A lot of good will could’ve been built up if the songs, co-written by Anders, his wife Nikki, and Peer Astrom were memorable, but unfortunately they emerge as an element that only doom this further. Viewers will know from the odd sounding opening version of “Come All Ye Faithful” that something is amiss, and the original songs fare even worse. Every track in Journey to Bethlehem is over produced, autotune heavy pop rock noise that sounds like Imagine Dragons if they hired two more bass players and three drummers. The bombastic, but again, unmemorable or orchestration nearly drowns out the vocals, but considering the tepid songwriting in play, that might be a positive for Anders. Only a number where a conflicted Joseph argues with himself about the validity of Mary’s claims manages to be slightly interesting. Everything else is thoroughly disposable stuff that will never become anyone’s idea of a holiday classic.
Journey to Bethlehem is a pretty cynical effort for a story built on the power of belief. It’s so weakly realized in both concept and execution that it comes across more like a seasonal cash grab than a work of genuine passion or playfulness. Add to that a bunch of unfunny jokes that wouldn’t tickle the funny bone of anyone over the age of four and nonsensical pacing that speeds over some of the more interesting and dramatic elements of Mary and Joseph’s story, and Journey to Bethlehem is less of a miracle and more of a long slog through the desert.
Journey to Bethlehem opens in theatre everywhere on Friday, November 10, 2023.
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