The mere notion that Ryan Murphy Productions mainstay and musical wunderkind Adam Anders was finally releasing a directorial debut made inspirational Journey to Bethlehem an instant must-see. How would this four-time Grammy nominee, who helped produce and arrange hundreds of chart-topping Glee hits, fare behind the director’s chair? I don’t consider myself an intensely religious person by any means, so I did approach this faith-based movie with caution. To my surprise, Anders manages to pull off a sweet, entertaining musical with heart destined for a regular Christian-movie Christmas rotation.
We all know the timeless story of Mary and Joseph, leading to the birth of baby Jesus under the North Star. What more could a new iteration possibly add? A brief introduction promises to be inspired by a true story—“the greatest one ever told.” The barely-used narration tells of an ancient prophecy destined to bring forth a world-saving king. Splashy map-traveling and beautiful desert imagery pop out before we even meet Mary (Fiona Palomo). Bored and indifferent about her impending arranged marriage, Mary gets her “I want” song, a signature staple of any musical.
Each musical number is elaborate and fun. Whilst one may anticipate heavier tones, boring ballads, or deeper hidden meaning, Journey to Bethlehem instead lets each major character play a bit in the movie’s sandbox. Some liberties may be taken here and there, but strict adherence to the story was obviously not necessary when it’s all so familiar in the first place. Channeling the moment when Aladdin meets Jasmine, Mary bumps Joseph (Milo Manheim) at the market, and profusely apologizes. Little does Mary realize, Joseph is actually her marital prospect. There’s also an over-the-top flamboyant King Herod (Antonio Banderas), threatened by the possibility of the prophecy coming to life, and his misunderstood right hand man, Antipater (Joel Smallbone).
Mary eventually insists that she has been visited by an angel, and is pregnant with child despite not consummating her relationship with Joseph. She claims she will give birth to baby Jesus: blasphemous, or just being honest? Occasionally, the visuals leave much to be desired. Angels are portrayed in a surprising manner, but those impressive musical sequences always impress. Palomo’s voice is silky smooth, and blends perfectly against Manheim’s in a wonderful duet. The film comes across sweet and inspirational, crafted from a place of love. Simple charms invite repeat viewings; however, there really is not much of a big blowout finale. The route they choose to go narratively traces familiar lines, but I do wish the musicality of the last twenty minutes or so left adult viewers with more to chew.
Journey to Bethlehem gives almost exactly what was expected, featuring minimal surprises. That said, the movie is filled to the brim with catchy musical pop songs instead of preachy religious tunes, or gospel music. Perhaps this could fit the bill for a harmless Christmas movie for the whole family to enjoy. A comfort watch of a different variety, Journey to Bethlehem pays musical tribute to the Bible’s nativity segment with panache.
Prepare for a magical Journey to Bethlehem when the film debuts exclusively in theaters on Friday, November 10th.