Journey to Bethlehem (2023, dir. Adam Anders)

by | Nov 23, 2023

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 99 mins

UK Distributor: Kova PR

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM?

Fiona Palomo, Milo Manheim, Antonio Banderas, Geno Segers, Omid Djalili, Rizwan Manji, Stephanie Gil, Joel Smallbone, Moriah, Antonio Gil, Alicia Borrachero, Lecrae, Maria Pau Pigem, Antonio Cantos

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Adam Anders (director, writer, producer, composer), Peter Barsocchini (writer), Brandt Andersen, Steve Barnett, Ryan Busse, Stephen Meinen and Alan Powell (producers), Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom (composers), Xavi Giménez (cinematographer), Sabrina Plisco (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Mary (Palomo) journeys with Joseph (Manheim) to the town of Bethlehem to give birth to a special baby…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM?

Faith-based entertainment nowadays tends to be either inoffensively preachy, or right-leaning garbage with horrible ideals that insult the very definition of Christianity, so it’s nice that every once in a while, there’s something like Journey to Bethlehem to come along and simply have fun without trying to be one or the other.

The film, from director and co-writer Adam Anders – a music producer best known in the entertainment biz for his contributions to jukebox series Glee – is a musical rendition of the Nativity, which of course tells the story of young virgin Mary (here played by Fiona Palomo) receiving news from the angel Gabriel (Lecrae) that she is to give birth to the son of God, and how she and her betrothed Joseph (Milo Manheim) travelled to the titular town for the delivery. Their biggest foe is the powerful King Herod (Antonio Banderas), who learns of the supposed King of Kings’ birth from the Three Wise Men (Geno Segers, Omid Djalili and Rizwan Manji), and sends his conflicted son Antipater (Joel Smallbone, of the Christian pop act For King & Country) to deal with it.

Anders and co-writer Peter Barsocchini obviously don’t take that many creative liberties with a story that everyone, Christian or not, knows off by heart, but by going all out with its musical identity, Journey to Bethlehem still manages to stand out from all the other Nativity retellings. The musical numbers are choreographed with the upbeat enthusiasm of a slightly higher-budgeted Disney Channel original movie (which, given that at least one of the leads actually was a Disney star at one point, makes an uncomfortable amount of sense), while the songs themselves are endearing and more often than not serve a narrative purpose. They’re also performed well by a cast that clearly has a strong set of vocal cords between them, especially Antonio Banderas who is having the time of his life chewing on scenery left and right as King Herod, whom he plays by way of Captain Jack Sparrow half the time, which makes it even more entertaining to watch.

Of course, it being a familiar story, especially one targeted toward a more wholesome Christian audience, the film plays it predictably safe which might be disappointing for some, especially those expecting a power ballad about Herod ordering the slaughtering of several newborns as in the Bible, which is briefly mentioned but just as quickly cast aside. However, that doesn’t stop Anders from inserting some very odd choices into his retelling, such as Lecrae’s Gabriel having his own line-o-rama session as he prepares to tell Mary the news of her immaculate conception (he even has a slapstick moment as he bumps his head on a doorframe as he floats into Mary’s bedroom). Certain plot strands, and even entire characters, will disappear from the movie altogether after being heavily built up, often in favour of giving the comic relief Three Wise Men more opportunities to bicker and complain about how uncomfortable their camels are to ride. If these are meant to add light relief to a story that’s nothing but light, then they’re strangely executed, to say the least.

Much of that tends to take away from the fact that it’s also not a poorly-made film, with some ambitious cinematography and clear production values dominating many of the sets, costumes and locations. There are so many faith-based movies that wear their cheapness like a badge of honour, but Journey to Bethlehem looks like it was at least made with a substantial amount of money behind it, which helps make it look like an actual movie and not something shot for next to nothing in a short amount of time. You can tell that Anders was ambitious with how he wanted to present his film, which to a point you do have to admire from a practical point of view.

There’s not much else to say about Journey to Bethlehem, other than it’s a harmless musical take on the classic story, and while it’s certainly not the definitive Nativity movie, the fact that it’s got Antonio Banderas hamming it up like mad as King Herod must surely account for something.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Journey to Bethlehem is a harmless but entertaining musical retelling of the Nativity, which boasts stronger production values and a more dedicated cast, especially a gloriously over-the-top Antonio Banderas as King Herod, than most other faith-based movies out there.

Three out of five stars

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