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‘The Star’: Timothy Reckart puts a new spin on the Nativity story

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Sony animation Christmas feature is Oscar-nominated director's first studio film.

Growing up in Arizona as the second oldest of six children, Hollywood director Timothy Reckart had a “big extended Catholic family.” That and a big bottle of a certain hamburger condiment was pretty much all he needed to make some memorable movies when cousins came to visit.

“Every Christmas or Thanksgiving we had so many kids around that it was essentially a cast of thousands to be in a little homemade movie,” Reckart, 30, said in a recent interview. “And what we loved when we were kids was making a movie that involved killing everyone off, one at a time. So with ten kids available to be killed off you could really make a nice movie using a big bottle of ketchup.”

Reckart’s first studio film, The Star, coming four years after an Oscar nomination for a short stop-motion animation about marriage, does not include any scene involving a lot of kids getting killed off, though it could have. It’s a retelling of the Nativity story, from the perspective of the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, the camels who carry the Wise Men, the barn animals who may have been present at the birth of Jesus, and other sundry creatures. The antagonist in the animated film, as in the original telling in Matthew’s Gospel, is King Herod. But rather than showing Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, Carlos Kotkin’s screenplay gives Herod ferocious guard dogs, who set out to find and destroy Bo the donkey and his companions, Ruth the lamb and a dove named Dave.

“It’s really cleverly done and quite entertaining and funny, and a little bit scary and thrilling,” said actress Patricia Heaton, who voices the character of Edith the cow. “I think they’ve done a great job of bringing the Nativity story to audiences in a fresh way.”

Heaton, in an interview, said the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is treated respectfully in the Sony Pictures animation. “The comedy is coming from the animals themselves and their inability to reckon with this thing they know is coming and this news that they’re hearing about the star,” she said.

“Nothing in the Bible says anything about the animals, so it’s completely original,” Reckart said. “I guess the obvious pitfalls are how to deal with the story of Mary and Joseph and to do that in a way that doesn’t completely go over the story from the characters that we wanted to tell the story. I was trying to find a way to tell [the story of Mary and Joseph] from the sidelines, from the point of view of these characters that aren’t at the center of it. It’s also important because their story is a story about two parents who worry about this baby that’s coming, and that’s a hard thing for kids to tune into.”

Reckart said he wanted to be sensitive to the treatment of the story of Mary and present her in a way that was human but also lived up to her standing as “God’s perfect servant.” While Mary certainly breaks out of the mold of a statue-saint, some viewers may find her reaction to the Angelic Greeting a little too pedestrian.

As for her betrothed, Joseph, Reckart’s creative team “wanted to show a personality that had virtue but also had room to grow,” he said. “This guy’s a carpenter. If he were alive today he’d probably be an engineer. He’s the guy who’s planning everything, he’s got everything organized, he’s got his tools all lined up and sorted.

“So when he’s going on a trip to Bethlehem he wants everything to be perfect for his pregnant wife, and when things don’t turn out the way he was hoping it would, that’s the moment he has to be the guy letting God take the wheel and letting go and not needing so much control,” Reckart said. “I don’t know if that’s who Joseph was in reality, but I thought it was an opportunity to present one vision of who he could be as a human  being.”

Reckart grew up in Tucson, where he attended University High School. He studied history and literature at Harvard University and graduated in 2009. He later attended the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, UK, where he graduated in 2012 from the Directing Animation course. It was there that he made Head Over Heels, which uses clay figures to tell the story of a husband and wife who have become so distant that they are living their lives completely apart—one on the floor, the other on the ceiling. In addition to the Oscar nomination, it won several others, including the Best Animated Short in the Austin Film Festival and the Heartland Film Festival’s Vision Award.

Reckart was named one of Variety‘s 10 Animators to Watch in 2015. He is currently based in Los Angeles where he also does work in multiplane collage animation, digital 2D animation, and pixilation.

“I’m glad that my parents were supportive of this interest of mine because I think a lot of parents who are religious are nervous about their children going into the film industry,” he said. “But I think that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if we refrain from sending our best people into the film industry then we’re never going to change the film industry.”

The Star opens Friday, November 17. Purchase tickets here and get a free download of the song “The Star” by Mariah Carey with purchase.

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