Most faith-based films, even the good ones, are dramas designed to impart serious ideas about religion. Journey to Bethlehem is quite different. It tells the story of Mary in the form of a musical. And not just a musical, but a musical with rom-com elements. That could have been a disaster, except that director Adam Anders is very careful to keep the meaning of the Biblical story intact. The movie is fun, vibrant, and uplifting.
Mary (Fiona Paloma) has a traditional “meet cute” with Joseph (Milo Manheim) prior to discovering he’s the man her parents have decided she will marry. You undoubtedly know how the story goes from there, so there is no need for a plot synopsis. Singer Lecrae plays the angel Gabriel and Antonio Banderas is King Herod. You also get three directionally challenged wise men who provide comic relief. Actually, Gabriel gets a big laugh too, when he bonks his head on Mary’s doorway while floating in her bedroom.
Interspersed with the tale are a series of musical numbers that advance the narrative, including one where Mary’s friends commiserate with her over the arranged marriage. The pop songs are incredibly catchy and wouldn’t sound at all out of place on a Top 40 radio station. Each sequence is full of energy as the cast carries out intricately choreographed dance moves to coincide with the tunes. A great deal of care has clearly been put into these sections, allowing them to entertain while still lyrically fitting into Mary’s arc.
None of this would work without a capable cast. Journey to Bethlehem has one. Paloma is terrific as Mary, capturing the mixture of uncertainty and faith that drives the character. She has sweet chemistry with Manheim, who makes Joseph a good-hearted man driven to do what he thinks is right, even when it puts him in an awkward position. As Herod, Antonio Banderas is wonderful, giving the guy a personality that amusingly mixes narcissism and buffoonery. He steals every scene he's in.
The movie obviously builds to the birth of Jesus. For all the light-heartedness found here, the finale conveys the significance of that birth in a respectful, sincere manner. Mary and Joseph realize their difficult trek was worth it, while the wise men celebrate what they know is a momentous occasion. Other movies have tackled the subject, including 2006’s The Nativity Story, with an eye toward conveying great meaning. Journey to Bethlehem forges its own path, focusing on the inherent joy of Christ’s birth. Could there be a better reason for celebratory song and dance?
A few people may gripe that portraying Mary and Joseph as a Biblical Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is a tad on the silly side. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Then again, the movie is so infectiously fun that only a Grinch or a Scrooge could complain too loudly.
out of four
Journey to Bethlehem is rated PG for thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.