Christmas comes early this year, as “Journey to Bethlehem” puts words (and music) in the mouths of all who bore witness to Jesus’ birth. Some of those tunes — like “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — will sound familiar enough, though most of the songs — like most of the script — represents a fresh interpretation of believers’ original miracle, courtesy of Adam Anders, making a competent, if undistinguished directorial debut with the least edgy retelling of the nativity story around (which is essentially what the faith-based audience has been asking for).
One half of the duo behind the music for “Glee,” Swedish-born Anders comes to the project after more than two decades of penning and producing songs for boy bands and Disney Channel artists, including the Backstreet Boys (“More Than This”), Nick Lachey and the Jonas Brothers. He was instrumental in the soundtracks of big-screen musicals “Rock of Ages” and “The Prom,” and now he puts his pop stylings — and wife Nikki Anders’ lyrics — to work imagining the mindsets of Mary (Fiona Palomo), Joseph (Milo Manheim) and their respective families.
With various Spanish desert locations doubling for the Holy Land — and a good-sport Antonio Banderas doubling for jealous Herod, king of Judea — “Journey to Bethlehem” boasts sufficient production value to reward its early-November theatrical run, though it will surely get far more play in home formats. Opening with a sly card that reads, “Inspired by a true story… the greatest one ever told,” the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. But that doesn’t mean it’s the slightest bit irreverent either.
Adam Anders and co-writer Peter Barsocchini (a collaborator on Tyler Perry-hosted TV event “The Passion”) aim to entertain with a mix of broad comedy and earnest emoting: The Three Magi (Omid Djalili, Geno Segers and Rizwan Manji) are only slightly less silly than the Three Stooges, while Mary and Joseph seem genuinely conflicted about their impending (arranged) marriage. “What about my future, as a teacher?” Mary asks her father, rebuffing a scruffy stranger’s friendly flirtation in the market without realizing that he’s none other than her intended husband.
Taking a breather from their betrothal ceremony, the couple perform a decent duet with heart-to-heart “Can We Make This Work,” though their love story doesn’t really hit its stride until they come to terms with Mary’s immaculate conception (the news comes courtesy of Lecrae as the angel Gabriel, who goofily rehearses his Annunciation news before informing Mary that she’s to bear the savior). Later, the couple leaves Nazareth and takes shelter in Hebron, where they finally decide to marry, singing “We Become We” while fireflies flutter all around — a song that could have a life beyond the confines of this film.
The whole project is a husband-wife collaboration for the Anderses, with “Glee” partner Peer Åström along for the ride, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge the peppy pop appeal this trio deliver. They’re clearly going for the clap-your-hands, stomp-your-feet spirit of “The Greatest Showman,” especially in catchy end-credits track “Brand New Life” (the most Christmassy-sounding song here, with its “Celebrate!” refrain).
But there’s one number that nearly steals the show: Sporting heavy eyeliner and a molded breastplate, Banderas clears his throat and gamely launches into “Good to Be King,” rolling his Rs and growling the lines, “Mine is the kingdom! Mine is the power! Mine is the glory forever more!” It’s a campy-fun sequence that lands somewhere between the sinister, Broadway-style solos by early-’90s Disney villains and Malcolm McDowell’s scenery-chewing “Caligula” performance (minus anything that would have tipped this into PG-13 territory).
“Journey to Bethlehem” is first and foremost a family movie, and though its music sounds a little too early-aughts to become a classic, it fills a crèche-shaped niche in the current theatrical landscape, with nearly six weeks to clean up before Christmas.