It’s hard for Catholic parents these days — and selecting movies for the kids is no exception. On the one hand, we have a flood of highly produced Disney and Pixar films with increasingly questionable moral values. On the other, a slow trickle of schmaltzy or odd faith-based films with perennially questionable artistic value. And in the middle — very little.
But between the restless checking of Common Sense Media and the replays of old standbys shines a new ray of hope, and just in time for Advent: Journey to Bethlehem, a musical about the birth of Jesus from Sony subsidiary Affirm films.
Right off the bat, it’s worth cautioning that any believer who has bristled at the portrayal of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles in the smash hit The Chosen is likely to have the same reaction here — all the more so given that (yes, you read it right) this is a movie musical. Parents shouldn’t even go into Journey to Bethlehem expecting a to-the-letter retelling of the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, never mind a depiction of Mary and Joseph typical of Catholic piety.
Instead, having taken certain core elements of the scant infancy narratives as a baseline — the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Epiphany — the filmmakers fancifully weave a story of the young couple’s meeting and engagement, supplying imaginative details (Mary wants to be a teacher, Joseph an inventor — and neither, at first, is especially eager to settle down) and spotlighting the deeply human hesitations and impulses each might have felt along the way. It would be wise to watch the film with children to help talk them through what is biblical and what is not.
But if that is no impediment, Journey to Bethlehem is that unicorn of a kids’ movie: a faith-based film that is both rich with positive messages and dressed to the nines with production value.
The acting is solid, from the two young actors playing Mary and Joseph, to the rapper Lecrae making an impressive debut as the Angel Gabriel, to Antonio Banderas, who is perfectly cast as King Herod — and even dressed up in fake muscles, clearly conveying to the kids this man’s ridiculousness. The writing also displays some genuinely powerful moments, as when that insecure king bellows “Mine is the kingdom, mine is the power, mine is the glory” — a glimpse into the dark, lonely heart of a thoroughly worldly soul, and a foreshadowing of the coming King of all the earth.
And then there is the music. From “Mary’s Getting Married” to “Can We Make This Work” to “In My Blood” (sung by Joel Smallbone of For King and Country), the songs of Journey to Bethlehem are as impressive, infectious, and fun as any Disney offering. My own kids, for what it’s worth, are already on their way to memorizing the songs and eagerly looking ahead to the next viewing.
My one great regret about this delightful Christian film — an ironic one coming from a Catholic — is not something the filmmakers have added to Scripture, but something they have left out: Mary’s fiat. In Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel announces her calling to be the Mother of God, she answers, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It’s a brief but pivotal line, one that remains on the lips and minds of Catholics around the world who pray the Angelus daily.
In this line, divine grace is met with human freedom — for “he who created us without our help,” as Augustine put it, “will not save us without our consent.” It’s an incredibly dramatic moment, as a homily from St. Bernard of Clarivaux reminds us, and one that would have been in keeping with the tenacious strength Journey’s Mary otherwise displays. Puzzlingly, at the Annunciation, we never hear such a line from Mary, who continues to wrestle with accepting this news until the angel’s departure, and long afterward.
A missed opportunity, for sure — just as it would be to let theological perfection get in the way of great faith-filled fun for the whole family. For Mary, as for all generations after her, the birth of the Savior changes everything. And for Christian parents — as for all other parents tired of watching the same old things — it’s a good time to make a journey to Bethlehem and remember it.