Journey to Bethlehem

Journey to Bethlehem: The Must-See Christmas Film of 2023

30 November 2023

4.1 MINS

Humour, a dazzling musical score and star actors bring the glitter and glad tidings of the first Christmas to life in Journey to Bethlehem.

Hitting Australian cinemas this week, the live-action musical Journey to Bethlehem puts an upbeat, joyful and unexpected spin on the Christmas story, making it the must-see family movie of this holiday season.

Directed by former Glee music producer Adam Anders, and starring rapper Lecrae and Australian musician Joel Smallbone of For King & Country fame, Journey to Bethlehem is a music-driven, foot-tapping, smile-inducing, no-apologies retelling of the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth.

The movie was produced by Affirm Films, the faith-based division of Sony. It is an investment Sony won’t regret: Journey has performed well internationally thus far, taking US$2.4 million on its opening weekend and already making back most of its US$6 million budget before December has even begun.

The Nativity Story as a Musical?

I approached Journey to Bethlehem with a series of entrenched biases: a deep passion for the nativity story; an ambivalence towards musicals; a suspicion of low-budget Christian movies; and a love for all things Christmas.

My fears were, for the most part, unwarranted. In no way did the film feel Christian-cringey or low-budget, and for me, the musical numbers lifted this movie out of the realm of the ordinary and made much of the joy and celebration of the first Christmas. While I harbour some reservations about the artistic license used with the biblical texts — a point to which I will later return — this did not detract significantly from my enjoyment of the film.

For me, Antonio Banderas, made famous by Shrek, The Mask of Zorro and Puss in Boots, provided the most compelling acting role in the part of King Herod, while Milo Manheim shone as Joseph, and Joel Smallbone excelled in his depiction of Herod’s son Antipater.

What makes the Christmas story so suited to dramatic portrayal is the stark contrast between the ruthless power structures of its first century setting and the unassuming arrival of God in a bed of straw to peasant parents. On this, Journey hits the target — perhaps captured best in King Herod’s early melodic boast, “mine is the kingdom, mine is the power, mine is the glory”, contrasted with the wise men singing by film’s end, “thine is the kingdom, thine is the power, thine is the glory” to the newborn Christchild.

Being a musical, Journey provided the screenwriters with a unique opportunity to externalise the characters’ inner worlds. The Ultimate Deception, exploring Joseph’s wrestle over Mary’s outrageous pregnancy, and Mary’s Mother to a Saviour and King with its “carrying your Son when I need you to carry me” refrain, are particularly memorable in this regard.

A Word or Two of Critique

Any Bible-to-film adaptation will, of necessity, involve the addition of details not found in the immediate text — whether character backstories, subplots or cultural context. Journey earns a mixed score on this front.

In terms of its set and wardrobe, the film has precious little to fault, having built solidly on the successes of The Chosen and turning various filming locations in Spain into a convincing ancient Israel.

It likewise skilfully weaves plot and subplot together, drawing from both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, to emphasise the full gamut of scandal, wonder and intrigue already present in the nativity story, long before the addition of any Hollywood glitz or glamour.

For me, what detracted from Journey was an over-reliance on anachronisms, particularly for Mary’s character. “My whole life I wanted to be a teacher,” Mary protests to her parents in response to her betrothal to Joseph. It is not only implausible that an ancient Jewish girl would have preferred a teaching career over marriage and motherhood — it is a tired feminist talking point that the film never properly debunks with a worthy portrayal of Mary’s Magnificat, which is surely a vital centrepiece of the nativity story. For this reason, Mary’s Getting Married was my least favourite musical piece, even if it impressed cinematically.

The film’s treatment of the concept of faith also departed too far from Scripture for my liking. “Faith is believing what you know in your heart to be true,” from the lips of Mary, is both a tired cliche and a pale imitation of real, biblical faith that boldly believes what God has said is true despite what our hearts might say.

I will leave it to others to critique the romance-heavy Mary and Joseph storyline, complete with its donkey-cart ride off into the sunset. In my books, that’s fair game in a fun film pitched at young family audiences.

The Standout Flick of the Season

My only other criticism of Journey to Bethlehem is that it was a little light-on in regards to the gravity and mystery of the incarnation — which is ultimately what the story of Christmas is all about. That said, a film cannot be asked to do everything, and this film unapologetically targets the adventure-family-musical market. Judged on this, its stated goal, Journey has done a masterful job of retelling a precious biblical story in a unique format to a new generation of viewers.

There is much to commend this film as the standout Christmas flick of the season, not least its evangelistic potential. Journey is full of humour, musically solid, bright and joyful, and will be beloved of children especially. No doubt its soundtrack will resound for many Christmases to come and its songs and dances inspire untold Christmas pageants and church plays in the years ahead.

Reviewers have been kind to Journey thus far. Audiences have given the film 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. The site’s critics are also reasonably happy with the newest nativity offering, rating it at 74%. On IMDb, where Christian films rarely score above 6 out of 10, Journey has earned 6.6 — a notable achievement.

Some reviewers have lamented that Journey to Bethlehem is a throwback to the Disney musicals of last decade, while the New York Times has smeared it as “Hallmark pulped through a Disney strainer”.

My response? If the cynical, anti-Christian New York Times hates Journey to Bethlehem, it is absolutely a film worth seeing. And Disney before it went woke and started releasing box-office flops? Sounds great to me.

Book your tickets and take the whole family.

To find where Journey to Bethlehem is screening near you, visit the official website here.

Image via Journey to Bethlehem.

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