Forever My Girl – More Than a Romantic Comedy

Forever My Girl, released this week on DVD, is a film adaptation of the best-selling novel. Forever My Girl is a sweet, second-chance romance that, despite some genre-typical set-ups and pay-offs, and a too-neat ending, has an endearing warmth and depth.

For my commentary on the Salt + Light Radio Hour (and to find out if Deacon Pedro watches romantic comedies-starting April 28), listen in here.

The storyline starts with an all-too-obvious heartbreak that totally fits the genre: on the day of their wedding, up-and-coming local Southern singer Liam Page abandons his bride Josie to pursue a career in country music. Eight years later, Liam is a famous country music star who, when he hears about the death of his friend, returns to his long-neglected past in his hometown in Louisiana for the funeral. Although he hovers around the edges of the service and burial, not really reconnecting, he ends up extending his visit, perhaps seeking to recover what he lost.

The story continues with obvious ploys which, while predictable for the genre, seem to work for this film:

  • On Liam’s return, Josie knocks him over with a punch
  • Josie is a single mom with a daughter, Billy
  • At first, Billy is a very cute, lovable brat, who keeps Liam at a distance, but she gradually lets down her walls 
  • Josie’s brother Jake taunts Liam with his abandonment and accuses him of being unfit for Josie and Billy
  • Liam’s father provides an explanation of why Liam ran away

Anyone who has watched a few rom-coms has seen all of these before—many of them together in similar films. But a couple earnest, understated choices of the filmmakers make all the difference:

  • When Liam decides to stay in his hometown, he doesn’t try to explain or defend himself to Josie, to Josie’s brother Jake, or to his father (who is also a pastor and is realistically struggling to deal with his disappointment in his son).
  • The film uses one telling detail to show not only that Liam has been unable to forget Josie, but that he is desperate for a connection with her
  • Despite Liam’s inner anguish, he has enough self-respect, courage, and respect for the people he left behind to seek reconciliation by simply being present, with no expectations.
  • Josie’s feisty response to Liam’s reappearance—he never contacted her after abandoning her at the church—rings true and reveals a maturity in her character. It takes time before she decides to see him or spend time with him.
  • While Liam’s father initially struggles with Liam’s return, he both encourages Liam and lets Liam find his own way.
  • Another nice touch in the film is how Liam’s isolation and brokenness is portrayed visually: he is constantly on the outside of the community/family, looking in.
  • Alex Roe’s understated performance as Liam really gives depth to this film. Rather than coming back with a “Here I am!” attitude, he simply accepts the criticism, blame, and doubts he receives. He doesn’t expect anything from the people he hurt and left behind. But he constantly tries to show—with his actions—what his intentions and desires are. His admirable quiet restraint, even humility, in several situations that are emotionally difficult for everyone is quite striking.

 

A Window to the Soul: into the Virtues of Humility, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, Starting Over, Christian Community, Family

Forever My Girl is not an overtly Christian movie (and there are definitely non-Christian ideas and behavior in the film about living together, language, modesty, etc.). Rather, it is a mainstream genre film that contrasts a fame-driven, self-centered lifestyle with an other-centered, Christian lifestyle. Forever My Girl offers a refreshing view of a Christian community that is neither perfect nor hypocritical: real disciples of Christ who struggle to live the healing love of forgiveness Jesus calls us to. In today’s revenge-hungry, self-entitled culture, forgiveness can be unimaginable. But this film—without preaching—shows the power and beauty of these most important Christian virtues: forgiveness and true reconciliation.

For those who love romantic comedies, Forever My Girl is not to be missed. Forever My Girl is also a good choice for a teen or YA “Meeting Jesus at the Movies Night.” The film is rated PG, appropriate for families with older tweens and up (depending on the maturity of the child).

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A Wrinkle in Time Movie (& Novel) Guides Available Now!

It’s a delight to be able to offer this little Easter gift for my blog readers!

Here are some guides for reflection and discussion for A Wrinkle in Time, available individually or all in one downloadable PDF. Eventually, these guides will move to the website for the Pauline Center for Media Studies, so if you’re interested in discussing the film or the book, or comparing the two, or simply praying with themes (and Scriptures) from the novel, you might want to download them from here today. Enjoy!

A Wrinkle in Time Movie has “wrinkles” but is worth seeing if…

The beloved, classic YA novel A Wrinkle of Time influenced countless young people who read it during their formative years. The 2018 film reminds us of the differences between books and movies—and that one doesn’t always translate well to the other—but it still offers insight into aspects of Madeleine L’Engle’s original story.

The Story

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of young teen Meg Murry, whose parents are brilliant scientists who research the universe in a microcosmic and macrocosmic way. Meg’s father disappeared without a trace four years ago, and while Meg and her family desperately miss him and believe his disappearance has to do with his research, they have to put up with their neighbors’ and classmates’ snide remarks that their father purposely abandoned them.

Meg has an exceptionally brilliant brother she is very close to, five-year-old Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace often seems to know things without being told—including Meg’s often unspoken feelings of inadequacy and her struggle to fit in.

Several strange ladies, “fallen stars” (who are really angel-like figures) befriend Charles Wallace and take him, Meg, and Meg’s new friend from school, Calvin, on an inter-dimensional journey to other planets in the galaxy to find Meg’s father and rescue him.

The above description fits both film and novel, but doesn’t capture the emotional impact that the novel had on countless young people since its publication in 1962. This summary might seem a bit formulaic, but at the time, A Wrinkle in Time defied both categorization and expectations. (Eventually, it would help to define the YA genre, and in my mind it remains one of the first—and the best—YA books read today.)

Christian Themes

The author, Madeleine L’Engle brings a unique Christian sensibility to fantasy in her book, A Wrinkle in Time:

* the sense of wonder at and gratitude for the marvels of the universe

* an attitude of praise toward the Creator of the universe, who has created everyone (and everything) with a purpose to fulfill

* a solidly Christian foundation for the story, especially evident (but unstated?) in its approach to the universe, to life, the dignity of the human person, and to the struggle of good vs. evil

* a fascination with paradox and humility

* a deep respect for the reader: L’Engle is not afraid to challenge the reader’s ability to grasp scientific theory and to stretch our imagination to its limits

* an integrated way of seeing reality, the human person, and spiritual growth

Unfortunately, very little of this is carried through into the film.

The Film

But the film has some strengths and adaptations that make it well worth viewing: Strong acting, inclusive casting, some wonderful lines from the book are included in the dialogue, the fact that it is family-friendy, some delightful touches that nuance certain characters to show that it is their woundedness that gives an entryway to sin. The portrayal of the angelic characters, the Mrs. W’s, totally challenge the traditional image of angels. In the novel and in the film, the angels keep Meg and viewers off-balance and slightly uncomfortable—the way we are supposed to be when in the presence of angels.

Some of the important themes that are explored in the movie are:

* the tyranny of conformity vs. the the gift of individuality

* importance of free will

* the gift (or grace) of our weakness

* forgiveness

* growth in self-confidence and integrity

* the struggle between good and evil/light and darkness

* love, especially under the aspect that love is the strongest power in the universe and is the best way to overcome evil

The film also addresses the wonder of creation, but in this aspect, we see lots of special effects, which are dazzling visually, but less of experience of wonder.

The film got a lot right, and is worth seeing on its own. However, it could have been so much more. As a novel, A Wrinkle in Time is practically perfect; the film’s artistry doesn’t measure up to the book, nor is it a great film on its own.

My second biggest disappointment in the film is that, although the characters are likable, we never get to “feel” with them. Somehow, this movie leaves us on the surface. None of the characters get the just development they deserve. As the protagonist, Meg has a credible character arc, but it never makes us feel with her. (And it’s certainly not the wonderful character arc of the book.)  Too much time is spent on the visual effects, but again, we experience them from the surface. In L’Engle’s book, creation itself is a character, but in the book, it is simply a colorful background. Choices are consistently made that pull us away from the deeper story of the characters. A chase scene that doesn’t even exist in the book was added in…and it doesn’t even make sense. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the special effects means that we don’t have enough time to go deeper into the characters.

The pacing of the plot was uneven. The film jumps between places and flashbacks in time, but too often the jumps didn’t serve the story.

Translation from Novel into Film

CAUTION: BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD

My first disappointment in the film is that so many of the themes inherent in L’Engle’s novel don’t make it into the film. In the novel, L’Engle’s characters directly quote the Bible at least five times: from Isaiah, the Gospel of John, 1 & 2 Corinthians. (I would have to reread the book just for Scripture citations to be sure how many; I probably missed one or two or more!)  I don’t believe that the film used any of those quotes, even though several of them capture these deeper themes so well. By eliminating the reference to these quotes and removing those themes, the filmmakers are removing the major part of the depth and magic of the story.

One of my favorite events which is key in Meg’s character development, is completely left out. Instead, the movie shows her father trying to tesser Meg out and failing, because of Meg’s strength of will (and maybe her temper). From there, the film moves right to the climax of the story. (In the novel, of course Meg has a temper, but after almost dying from her father’s effort to tesser her home, she goes through an inner journey on the planet of Ixchel, which prepares her for the final encounter with It. Her choice to go back to get Charles Wallace comes not from fear, but is a choice of love and trust, even in the blindness of her fear and the knowledge that she isn’t strong enough. By leaving out this journey to Ixchel—one of the most important events of the book and a key event in Meg’s character development—the film reduces the novel’s incredibly rich thesis to a flat journey to self-esteem, with a generic message about the power of love.

My disappointment in the film was made all the greater by the filmmakers claiming to know L’Engle deeply. Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a hymn of praise to God, so I must let it stand as it is and not be fearful when it is misunderstood.” In taking out many of the specifically Christian elements from the film, the filmmakers also took away the universal elements: the film has a weaker storyline, a generic message that lacks depth and specificity, flat themes, and characters that don’t emotionally engage the audience.

The Foolish and the Weak

The film’s biggest theme — Meg gaining enough self-esteem to learn to trust herself —is a worthy theme that resonates with kids. But in the novel, Meg doesn’t save herself by her own power, just because she believes in herself. Her learning to trust in herself is only a part of one of the book’s main themes: the Christian paradox of weakness and strength, of failure and victory—all of which, of course, refers to the paradox of the cross. This is a far cry from the tagline of the film, “Be a warrior.” I assume that the tagline (and the line repeated in the film) is about being a warrior of love, and having courage. But that is really not the theme–not even of the film.

The novel’s last chapter is titled “The Foolish and the Weak,” and directly quotes 1 Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Meg doesn’t just learn that the power of this world—the power we can see—is not the greatest power in the universe. She learns that love is. But it’s a mutual love. It is in her faults, in her weakness and neediness, that she “grows into” accepting the truth about herself. And that truth, that humility, enables her to receive the love that transforms her into Love for others—to forgive her father and to rescue Charles Wallace no matter the risk to herself.  It is Meg’s remembering that she is loved by Mrs. Whatsit (an angelic stand-in for God) that enables her to love Charles Wallace who has lost himself, even as he is fighting her. Meg’s greatest adventure in A Wrinkle in Time is not external, but spiritual.

Is A Wrinkle in Time a “Must-See” Film?

This film got a lot wrong, leaving out: some of the best scenes, all of the biblical references apart from Jesus’ name; the Pauline theme of the foolishness of God being wiser than human wisdom; the sense of divine design in the universe—even the lovely example that human life is like a sonnet. (Our lives have a certain structure, but we are free to say whatever we want to say, as long as we stay within that poetic design.) However, in all fairness, perhaps A Wrinkle in Time is just too great of a novel to do a great film adaptation today. Perhaps in the future, the right filmmaker will come along and do this novel justice.

At the same time, the film does a good job visualizing and dramatizing parts of this great story. If you like fantasy, or if you’d like a fun family movie that has a little more depth to it, or if you loved the book but also like film adaptations, you will probably enjoy this movie. If you haven’t read the book, or you haven’t read the book in a while, then I highly recommend reading the book first, or plan to read it soon afterwards. The movie needs the book to complete it. And the story is more timely today than ever. However, if you are a book purist, then I regretfully caution you that you might not enjoy the film.

A Final Note

Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors—both her fiction (A Wrinkle in Time) and nonfiction (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art). I suspect this is part of the reason why:

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” – Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

A discussion guide for the film and the novel highlighting some of these themes will be available in shortly—check back here on my blog or email me if you’d like to be notified when you can download it!

Make this Holy Week one-of-a-kind with Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

A “COOL PRAYER” FOR HOLY WEEK: A CINEMA NOVENA!

Join us in praying this nine-day Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

Let St. Paul lead you closer to Christ through nine days of prayer,
 using

  • a film clip from the new movie,PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST
  • a reading from the Letters of Saint Paul
  • a reflection
  • old and new prayers to Saint Paul
  • listen to James Faulkner, the actor who portrays St. Paul, reading from the Letters of St. Paul

This cinema novena will make this year’s Holy Week unlike any other!

Sign up for the novena here. (The Novena is available for free, beginning on March 23.)

Then, check here to find the showing of Paul, Apostle of Christ nearest you.

 

 

MORE ABOUT THE CINEMA NOVENA:

Paul, Apostle of Christ is nine unique days of prayer, supported by powerful, living depictions from the life of Paul, the great evangelizer and lover of Christ. This online novena will help you live in communion with Christ, for whom Paul preached, prayed, suffered, and ultimately gave his life. No other apostle preached, taught, and suffered as much as Paul, who did all for the sake of love. It is a way of drawing closer to Christ in your daily life.

You can begin the Novena any day you’d like, but you can join with the sisters praying it starting March 23 or March 24, 2018.

Sign Up for the Novena Today!

5 (or 6) Reasons To Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Your Family This Christmas!

5 (or 6) Reasons To Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Your Family This Christmas!

On most “favorite Christmas movie” lists, It’s a Wonderful Life takes grand prize. Did you know that It’s a Wonderful Life even made it onto the Vatican’s list of 45 outstanding films during cinema’s first 100 years?

 

 

I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV, as so many people have. Having seen it once or twice a long time ago, I thought it would be worth re-watching and perhaps mentioning during the Christmas Special on the Salt + Light Radio Hour. If you have listened to previous Christmas episodes of the Salt + Light Radio Hour, you might know that for the show’s host, Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a great Christmas movie. For him, it’s the greatest movie of all time. So I sat down to watch it one more time.

Need I admit it? I was wrong. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just an “okay Christmas movie.” After really watching it, my appreciation for this movie was transformed! It moved up from being somewhere on my “pretty good movie” list to on my top 20 list. And it’s worth way more than a mention; I ended up spending our entire segment discussing it with Deacon Pedro.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film for family viewing, for spiritual renewal, and for cinema divina.

You can listen to the Five Spiritual Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life on the Salt + Light Radio Christmas Hour here, or browse below for a rambling version. And, if you are going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas, go ahead and download the free movie guide here on our Pauline website, www.BeMediaMindful.org ! Even just browsing the list of themes or questions might enrich the appreciation you or someone in your family might have for this wonderful film.

It’s a Wonderful Life  available on DVD, streaming.

1946, 2 hrs 10 min

Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.

In a nutshell: A great film in every way: artistically, dramatically, and narratively. It’s ironic (but in some ways appropriate to the message of the film) that the lack of appreciation for this movie partially destroyed director Frank Capra’s reputation as a filmmaker.

George Bailey is a good man who becomes desperate and thinks his life is worthless when he thinks he’s lost everything—through no fault of his own. In a miraculous answer to prayer, God sends an angel from heaven to show George how he wrong he is: that his life is indeed wonderful. The film is based on a solid short story (The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern—which you can find online), which is well-written but also gives the film scope to develop. The script itself is well-written, with the themes developing through the events, rather than the dialogue. (In other words, this is not a preachy movie. It is, like all great movies, a story.)

The characters are well-drawn—both as written and as acted. Jimmy Stewart’s George immediately draws us in—in part because of his goodness, but also because of his ordinariness and how he figures things out and then comes to making the right decision for that moment. George is also real in how he struggles when he is faced with sacrificing one of his dreams. (His habit of kicking whatever is nearby is a sure sign he is upset.) If you haven’t seen the film, stop here and continue reading after you’ve watched it. (Spoilers ahead!)

 

Windows to the Soul

So, why does It’s a Wonderful Life make such a great Christmas movie, in that it is entertaining, touching, and reminds us what Christmas is all about?

This is the thematic “lens” I chose for the movie guide: In self-sacrificial love, the Son of God comes to earth to save us, coming as an Infant born to a poor couple in a stable. George Bailey also has a mission to help others, but in the challenges and self-sacrifices he faces, he begins to doubt his personal vocation, his worth, and the meaning of his life. 

Here are a few of my thoughts on the spiritual reminders or spiritual “windows” that It’s a Wonderful Life can help us to see more clearly. I hope that you add more of your favorite reasons for watching this amazing Christmas classic!

1. Image of manliness.

George Bailey offers us a noble image of manliness lived out in the vocation of husband and father—both physical and spiritual fatherhood. Interestingly enough, one of the meanings of the name “Bailey” is “protector” or “guardian.” Following in the footsteps of his father, George makes choices for his family but also for the well-being of the people of the entire community. He doesn’t just protect from evil but also provides for others through his self-sacrificing, kindness and generosity. For me, George’s portrayal of manhood as father and protector is noble—even Saint Joseph-like!

In his Theology of the Body, Pope Saint John Paul II presents us with an understanding of masculinity and femininity that is life-giving. In many ways, George and Mary are examples that powerfully resonate with what St. John Paul has to say.

 

A brief favorite scene: even as George’s life falls apart, he reveals just how tenderly he loves his daughter.

 

2. Power of temptation.

It’s easy to take good people for granted, or to put people on a pedestal. And when things are going well for us, we can take that for granted, too. The best people, even the most generous people, get tempted. George is heroically virtuous throughout most of his life, and yet, every time George chooses for his family instead of himself, or to provide for others over his dreams of travel and education, he really struggles with it. He honestly expresses his anger and resentment, even though he makes the unselfish choice. In the end, these good choices become a source for his temptation to discouragement—and he almost gives over to it.

Today, our culture values individualism and “following your dream” to the point where we do not always consider the needs of others. We don’t talk much about the common good, or the responsibility of the strong to pay attention to those who aren’t as strong.(Who of us would change our career so that the financial well-being of our community would be assured?) It’s so easy to take on an attitude of greed or acquisition. If we aren’t interested in material goods, we seek to acquire other things: experiences, reputation, number of “likes,” etc. It’s a Wonderful Life is a timely reminder of the virtue of unselfish love, and also of the importance of cultivating prayer and the values we cherish most, so that a moment of strong temptation won’t overpower us.

 

3. Spirit of Poverty

In his films, director Frank Capra often treats issues of social justice with a Catholic sensibility. (You can read more about Capra’s Catholic vision in his films in this well-researched article.) George Bailey repeatedly gives up his own dreams for his family and to manage the town’s Building and Loan Company founded by his father, to prevent the wealthy and greedy Mr. Potts taking over the town. With his talents, George makes much of the little resources he has, sometimes inspiring others, too, to help save the town and create simple but homey neighborhoods for immigrants struggling to establish themselves. 

George doesn’t just give up a successful career or making money. He also gives up his dreams of education, travel, his shared dream of a honeymoon with his bride, his life-dream of fulfilling his potential in the way that he envisions. George’s sacrifice of these dreams is his greatest struggle, suffering, and, in the end, becomes his greatest temptation. Focused on what he doesn’t have and what he missed out on, he is no longer able to truly see or appreciate the best part of his life.

And yet, it is poverty of spirit that helps him discover the true treasures in his life. The spirit of poverty is emphasized with the quote under the photo of George’s father in the bank: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” And Harry, George’s brother for whom George has sacrificed so much, sums up at the end of the film, “A toast…to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!”

George doesn’t just give away money; he shares in the fate of others who are struggling financially; he allows their plight to affect his decisions of how he is going to live his life. He lives the spirit of poverty: a way that helps others and responds creatively to injustice.

 

4. Discouragement and 5. The power of prayer.

(I’m combining lesson 4 & 5 here, so that I can add one more at the end.)

In the “heavenly discussion” early in the film, the angels comment that discouragement is worse than illness. George’s extreme discouragement—it’s not too much to call it despair—is a “spiritual illness” that influences how he sees everything. Doing the right thing becomes “too hard;” a life that holds many sacrifices starts to seem meaningless. As the audience who have witnessed George’s life, we clearly see that these thoughts are temptations. One of the startling moments in the film for me was one I’d forgotten: when George thinks that God’s answer to his prayer is a punch! I was startled by it because I have often felt the same way. Out of fear and weariness, I give in to discouragement and can no longer see the good in my own life.

Desperate as he is, George prays for help. As a vibrant, essential part of his community, George’s crisis is recognized by others and they pray for him, too. The angel Clarence uses some Dickens-like creativity to help George overcome the power of this seductive temptation.

When Clarence claims to be the answer to George’s prayer, it came to me to wonder how often others are answers to my prayers. When we are truly open to doing God’s will, when we sincerely pray “Thy will be done” in the Our Father, then we too, can be God’s answer to a prayer. This movie is very Christian in how it likes to turn things “upside down”: God does answer prayers, but in his own time, in his own way. God sees differently than we do. The little, ordinary person—the little ones of the Gospel—the ones for whom, like Mary, their weakness is God’s strength—are not necessarily so little in God’s eyes. How can we be the answer to someone’s prayer today?

 

6. Meaning and Giftedness of Life

The meaning of life—that every life has meaning, and that every life is wonderful—is the theme of film. Clarence’s line sums it up well: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (Or, as Galadriel says in Lord of the Rings: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”)

What is impressive to me is that, despite his goodness, on some level George hasn’t understood this. Despite his kind generosity, his family, his achievements, and his great sacrifices for others, when George gradually starts to lose his faith, he discounts them all. It seems that he has been blind to the gift of his personal vocation and the true meaning of his life. Perhaps George never truly grasped the meaning of his life; perhaps he has always clung in some way to the dreams he thought he renounced. He simply dismisses or forgets the many lives he has saved or transformed, even discounting the friendships that mean the most to him.

Each of us carries a mental image of what success means, and we might, like George, feel like a failure if we don’t achieve that image. But is that “success” our vocation? Is it “success” that makes us truly happy? 

For me, the question to ask myself at the end of this movie is, “What makes my life wonderful, here and now?” This is a great question to share on as a family after watching this film. 

Recognizing the giftedness of our own lives doesn’t just make us grateful to be alive; it gifts us with joy and happiness, because we recognize how God is at work in our lives, how God continues to save us and love us, blessing us and gracing us.

You can download the free movie guide here, courtesy of the Pauline Center for Media Studies.

Themes found in It’s a Wonderful Life: Sacrificial love, life-giving love, meaning in life, personal vocation, manliness, spirit of poverty, Christmas, giftedness of life, family, salvation, gratitude, power of prayer, discouragement, perseverance, social justice.

The Star: the Christmas Story through the Eyes of Talking Animals

The Star, which opened wide in theaters on November 17th, is a playful yet respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones. In trying to do a bit too much, the story wanders off-course midway, but overall The Star is a competent animated version of the story of the birth of Jesus, both entertaining and accessible to children.

The Story

The Star is mostly told from the viewpoint of a young donkey, who longs for adventure and to do something “big” in his life. The donkey, who comes to be called Bo (a nickname for Boaz), escapes from his owner and hides in the yard of the newly-married Mary and Joseph. Bo meets Mary and is delighted by her gentle understanding and care. Mary seems to have a special affinity for all of God’s creation, and she adopts Bo despite Joseph’s protests.

Bo goes back and forth between trying to follow his own long-cherished dream of adventure (to work in the royal caravan) and his loyalty to Mary and Joseph. The entire second act of the film follows Bo’s desperate attempts to rescue Mary from the assassin whom Herod sends after the three Wise Men. This middle part of the story feels quite convoluted by Bo’s changing his mind several times about what he will do, and the various complications that ensue. The plot further falters because of the heavy-handed use of several Christmas carols, when the action simply stops. But the wandering plot has a purpose, as Bo learns from every mistake he makes and recommits to helping the Holy Family, whether his service is appreciated or not. 

The filmmakers rose to the challenge of remaining true to the essence of the story of Jesus’ birth, all the while interweaving the fictional adventures of talking animals. From a Christian perspective, it is disappointing and somewhat contradictory that, in a children’s story about the birth of the King of Peace, both high points of the protagonist’s story are fights.

The visual design and animation of The Star is delightful and serve the story well to help connect the children with the characters.

The Characters

The tension between Bo’s longing for adventure and his growing attachment to Mary form the core of Bo’s character development. The outstanding character in the story is Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. She is lovably human and warm, but also clearly possesses—and exercises—great faith and love. Joseph, too, is appealing and manly. He really struggles with the idea of being chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God. Instead of showing Mary and Joseph as always calm and serene, the film shares several moments where Mary and Joseph react in a vulnerable and understandable way to the difficult circumstances they face. Their relationship and their encouragement to each other to have faith through difficulty is a joy to watch.

Bo is a hardheaded big-hearted donkey with a loyal friend in the not-so-practical dancing dove, Dave. Bo and Dave provide much of the enjoyable humor in the story. Bo’s growth in faithfulness, love, and discovering what is truly important in life might be a bit too complete by the end, but his growth and his adventures go hand-in-hand.

Several of the supporting characters are poorly drawn caricatures that fail to serve the drama or the humor, with particularly limited, overly-simple dialogue. The three camels who carry the wise men are often not funny, but irritating and even problematic: their attempts at humor included calling others by derogatory names. Name-calling is not a matter for humor in a children’s film. In one instance (which was unfortunately repeated), the name-calling might be construed as disrespectful to Christ and the Jewish people.

Windows to the Soul

In many ways, The Star is a wonderfully imaginative tale for children, set in the context of Jesus’ birth. The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film.

It’s hard to know at what age a child would most appreciate The Star. (This is true of many films, and why it can be so important for parents to watch movies with their children, and make sure to discuss it afterward.) Many moments in the film (especially the humor) seem to indicate that the film is for young children—toddlers up to 5 or 6 years old. But the super-scary assassin (perhaps a less-violent stand-in for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?) could be problematic, especially as the tension of his threat grows throughout the film. And older children will enjoy the antics of Bo and Dave, as well as receive insights into the journey of faith taken by Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.

However, in a couple of ways, the script needed stronger writing. Name-calling portrayed as humor, fighting used for the “big scene” at the end of a film about the birth of Jesus, and some overly simplistic dialogue about “being good” and “being bad,” plus the fact that Bo’s adventures and growth sometimes overshadow the story of the Holy Family, means that the film could have been much stronger in telling the story of the birth of Jesus. But when we remember that the viewpoint of the film consistently stays with the animals—primarily with Boaz, the donkey—The Star becomes quite a remarkable and delightful retelling of the Christmas story.

Note for Parents and Teachers: Affirm Films has made some wonderful resources available to use before and after watching the film. Go to the movie’s site: http://www.thestarmovie.com/ click on Menu and then click on the Resources tab. From brochures, coloring and activity pages, to a family discussion guide (downloadable for free), this is a great opportunity to spend time with your children on the true meaning of Christmas.

You can listen to my review online on Salt + Light Radio here. 

My Favorite New Movie Review Site…and a Few Films with Deeper Themes

In my Salt + Light segment this week, in addition to comparing two of the latest summer blockbuster comic book movies, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, I briefly described a few other films I watched (and two I hope to see). I am planning to post about each, but as I have fallen way behind in my film commentaries, I wanted to introduce you to a couple of the films and my new favorite review column, written by a team of Daughters of Saint Paul at the Pauline Center for Media Studies’ site.

For independent film lovers:

The Florida Project (2017) — a “slice of life” film from a child’s perspective that explores the poverty and brokenness of families on the periphery: this mother and daughter live within the shadows of Disneyworld. (Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s review is here;  Sr. Hosea and I will both comment on the film from various perspectives in an upcoming post.

 

 

A Quiet Passion (2016)—biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. The form and themes of this arthouse film suit the themes of Emily’s poetry (and her life!) See Sister Nancy Usselmann’s review, subtitled: The Aesthetics of a Poetic Soul.

 

Lion (2016)— the amazing journey of Saroo, a five year old child who is accidentally separated from his family by train and is lost, and his attempt to go back and find his brother and mother who loved him so much. (Based on nonfiction book, A Long Way Home.) Once again, Sister Nancy offers an insightful review.

 

And a couple of religious films:

All Saints (2017) The true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock and his All Saints Episcopal Church community. All Saints (reviewed here by Sr. Hosea Rupprecht, FSP) is releasing digitally November 28, and on DVD on December 12.

 

The Shack (2017) A great film for reflection and discussion.

 

I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve heard good things about:

 

And finally, I have to confess I am looking forward to seeing The Star with a niece or nephew, come November 17th.