Journey to Bethlehem

Aussie Actor Shines in Live-Action Christmas Musical “Journey to Bethlehem”

28 November 2023

6.6 MINS

Australian singer Joel Smallbone — one-half of the four-time Grammy-award-winning pop duo for King & Country — has delivered a spectacular vocal and acting performance in a recent live-action nativity musical, releasing in Australian theatres on 30 November.

As I have previously reported in the Daily Declaration, Affirm Films has this year released a world-first live-action nativity musical—directed by the musical heavyweight, four-time Grammy® Award nominee, two-time Golden Globe® winner and two-time People’s Choice® Award winner Adam Anders and starring the likes of Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots, Shrek, The Mask of Zorro, Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny) and Milo Manheim (Disney’s Zombies series).

I had the privilege of viewing the film before its official release in Australia this Thursday (30 November), so here are some of my impressions.

TL;DR: Watch it! (or at least buy tickets)

The bottom line for me is that this film is well worth supporting. And, no, I don’t mean that in a hold-your-nose-and-watch-it-just-because-it’s-Christian kind of way.

If you are a fan of The Chosen or similar high-quality, wholesome Christian content — or if you just love good music — you should genuinely enjoy the film. It is uplifting, well-produced and doesn’t forget the main message.

On the other hand, you may not enjoy the film for a number of reasons (some of which I will outline towards the end of this article).

Okay, so here are some of my impressions.

Full disclaimer: I watched Journey to Bethlehem (twice) on a MacBook Air with a (decent) set of Sony headphones, so I certainly didn’t have the full cinematic experience. Nonetheless, I found the film as thoroughly enjoyable as I could in the circumstances — given I knew I would be reviewing the film and I couldn’t just sit, relax and enjoy it.

The Three Wise Men (Credit: AFFIRM Films)

My (non-expert) impressions: Music

What came as no surprise was the quality of the film score, which was published in the week leading up to the movie’s release in the US. You can find it in full on Spotify, and most of the songs, including some music videos, have also been published on YouTube.

Given the music and production team — Adam Anders, as well as his wife Nikki Anders (Glee), Peer Astrom (Rock of Ages), and Peter Barsocchini (High School Musical) — it is unsurprising that the score was top-notch.

Although not up to the standard of, say, Deliver Us or When You Believe, from Prince of Egypt, each number is impressive, fairly fitting and memorable in its own right — from the beautiful Can We Make This Work, sung by Mary and Joseph, to King Herod’s slightly goofy, but thoroughly evil, Good to Be King. At all levels, the cast was up to the task vocally (some performances were better than others, but none let the film down).

(I was personally disappointed that we only hear Lecrae singing for a fraction of The Nativity Song, although he sounds wonderful for those few seconds.)

The standout for me was the emotionally charged and powerful tune, In My Blood, sung by Joel Smallbone, who plays King Herod’s eldest son, Antipater, and also contributes some of the vocals to Good to Be King. Unsurprisingly, Joel nails the vocals in the number, delivering a goosebump-inducing performance.

Other thoughts on production quality

Journey to Bethlehem was produced on a budget of $6 million USD — comparable to that of the third season of The Chosen ($2.25 million per episode) or High School Musical 1 & 2 ($4 million and $7 million respectively).

While its production budget is dwarfed by, say, Les Misérables (with its $61 million budget) or The Greatest Showman ($84 million), the creators of Journey managed to avoid any glaring deficiencies in terms of set, prop or costume design, or postproduction quality.

In terms of acting, I personally couldn’t fault any of the major characters’ performances (although I am no expert) — and there were no actors who felt like they let the film down.

Maybe I’m biased as an Aussie, but in my opinion, Joel Smallbone’s portail of Antipater throughout the film was easily the most well-developed, subtle and believable performance in the film.

This was most clear to me the second time I watched it. While some of the other characters can feel pretty one-dimensional at times, Antipater really felt like he had some depth and complexity.

Perhaps this has more to do with the way his character has been written into the script than it does with Joel’s actual acting abilities. Still, he carried the part well, and I was thoroughly impressed by his performance — especially given he was acting alongside Banderas for much of the film.

Joel Smallbone in Journey to Bethlehem (credit: AFFIRM Films)


As with any film, there is a litany of things that could have been done better in Journey. It is worth mentioning, however, that as I viewed the movie, I found myself judging the quality of the film by the standards of mainstream Hollywood rather than by typical Christian or faith-based movie standards. That should tell you something about its quality.

Admittedly, there were several eye-brow-raising moments in the film — from the presence of female guards in King Herod’s palace to anachronistic Disney-like clichés concerning Mary’s arranged marriage (Mary has dreams of being a teacher and resents being married off to someone she has never met).

Mary and her sisters (Credit: AFFIRM Films)

For me, perhaps the most uncomfortable moment is when Mary (literally) bumps into Joseph for the first time, and, never having met, he begins to flirt with her despite Mary clearly stating twice that she is already betrothed (and being betrothed himself).

While I can overlook the fact that the clichéd exchange seems highly historically implausible, I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Joseph never actually apologises for his highly inappropriate behaviour. He merely points out that he happens to have been flirting with his betrothed.

This leads me to my most weighty criticism of Journey: namely, the lack of serious character development. In fact, the reason Antipater is so outstanding in the story is that he is the most three-dimensional character in it.

Both Joseph and Mary undergo a kind of “speed maturing” — both in their relationship and in their own personal lives. However, the film’s ninety-eight minutes is simply not enough time or space for more complex and compelling character arcs.

The reason this is such a disappointment for me is not because it greatly decreased my enjoyment of the film. Instead, it is because I could see so much creative potential in the film’s narrative, structure and approach.

While it is excellent at so many levels, I can see the potential for a genuine masterpiece. It just needed more time.

(Maybe the TikTok generation wouldn’t have coped with another half an hour to forty-five minutes — or even an additional hour — but I think that it could have transformed the film from an excellent one into a truly iconic masterpiece in the vein of Prince of Egypt.)

Additional time would have allowed the storytellers to pace the film more, providing important background concerning (in particular) Mary’s family life as well as more drama and gravity alongside the comical and the fun. Most importantly, it would have empowered the creators to integrate a serious, even if imaginative, treatment of weighty theological, Biblical and moral themes into the story.

Overall, it could have given the film more emotional, musical, spiritual and artistic weight.

King Herod and Antipater (Credit: AFFIRM Films)

Let’s get behind high-quality Christian content

By all accounts, the heart behind Journey to Bethlehem is deeply Biblical — a desire to communicate the greatest story of all time, to glorify Christ and to direct people to Him. And I think that it broadly achieves that aim.

I think there are legitimate discussions to be had about how well it managed the Biblical material and whether there were wasted opportunities in the film to communicate Biblical, moral or theological truth. However, I think we need to have such conversations without demonising the good-hearted attempt that was made by the creators of Journey.

Antonio Banderas as King Herod (Credit: AFFIRM Films)

Undoubtedly, from an artistic perspective, there will be those who love Journey to Bethlehem and those who hate it. (Its 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes would indicate that audiences greatly appreciate it; in fact, even its critical score of 74% sits comfortably higher than the 61% achieved by Ridley Scott’s $200-million biopic Napoleon.)

However, as Dallas Jenkins, the creator of The Chosen, said after watching the movie, it is important that Christians support projects like Journey to Bethlehem.

Hollywood needs to know that there is a demand for high-quality, wholesome, family-friendly, faith-based content. Accordingly, it’s worth buying tickets at your local cinema even if you can’t go to the movies to see the film. Money speaks volumes.

From a Biblical perspective, I understand that there will be a range of views as to the appropriateness of a creative treatment of the nativity story. And I completely respect people who may be uncomfortable with the film on principle.

For those who choose to see it as a family, I would only urge you to use discernment with children — take the opportunity to discuss themes that came out in the film, the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and other topics. Use the film as an educational opportunity.

(You can find one of many reviews from trusted Christian sources on Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn website.)

While it may not be the masterpiece that Prince of Egypt was (although I sincerely believe it had the potential to be), Journey to Bethlehem is a spectacular piece of art, and it deserves to be recognised as such — it is well worth seeing!

Journey to Bethlehem is showing in Australian theatres from Thursday 30 November 2023.

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One Comment

  1. Warwick Marsh 30 November 2023 at 11:15 am - Reply

    Great article. Balanced and thoughful and gracuios about a really great film. For 6 million it is unbeliveable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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