Christmas movies are common enough, as are family Christmas movies. But Timothy Reckart saw an opportunity to do something different with The Star, an animated retelling of the nativity story told from the point of view of a donkey named Bo and his animal pals.
“We had boxes of tapes for the movies we play every Christmas [when I was a kid], and none of those movies were actually about the birth of Jesus,” says Reckart, who directed the movie and grew up in a Christian family. “It felt like an opportunity to be part of a movie that has not been done before, that’s really going to fill a void.”
This month, Sony Pictures Animation will release The Star, produced by Disney veteran Jenni Magee-Cook and executive produced by DeVon Franklin of Franklin Entertainment and Brian Henson and Lisa Henson of The Jim Henson Company. The film features the voices of The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun as Bo, a donkey who aspires to joining the royal caravan; Keegan-Michael Key as Bo’s best pal, Dave the dove; Aidy Bryant as Ruth, a sheep; Zachary Levi as Joseph; Gina Rodriguez as Mary; Christopher Plummer as King Herod; and Tracy Morgan, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as the wise men’s camels, Felix, Deborah and Cyrus.
The Star is the first CG animation project for Reckart, whose previous work was in stop-motion, most notably his Oscar-nominated short Head Over Heels and as a lead animator on the indie feature Anomalisa. While Reckart loves stop-motion, he says CG was the right choice for this project. “Christmas and stop-motion have a very long history together, and I wonder if being in stop-motion might have made the movie feel smaller,” he says.
The idea of the movie presents a lot of challenges, starting with finding a story for the animals that complemented and resonated with the nativity tale. Reckart says it was important to be original. “We wanted to be able to have a movie where you have comedy and adventure, but we didn’t want to turn Mary and Joseph into comic characters or action heroes,” he says. “So if we could do that with Bo, but in a way that felt true to Christmas, then that was the goal.”
The script was originally developed about 20 years ago at The Jim Henson Company, partly inspired by the success of Babe, Reckart says. Redeveloping it for animation and audiences in 2017 was the first task on Reckart’s to-do list. That meant adding more comedy and action, as well as giving the characters a clear emotional through line. “That really seems to be the key to getting something that both parents and kids can tune into at the same level,” he says.
Head of story Louie del Carmen says the development process was very focused on making every design possible before heading into production with a limited budget and tight schedule.
“Tim understood the story he wanted to tell, and I was the guy who was going to champion that, and then also shore things up and also maybe even play devil’s advocate sometimes,” he says. “I think that that role really fit really well.”
Reckart gravitated toward the theme of great things coming in humble packages, which defined the arc for Bo. “Bo has the desire to go do great things, which I think all of us do, and he feels maybe at first that he’s settling when he decides that he wants just to stick with this couple that are important to him,” he says.
A Touch of Humor
Dealing with the nativity story in a way that was respectful of its importance to Christians as well as entertaining was a big piece of the development process, Reckart says. One thing he wanted to do was give them some humanity and an openness to life indicated by Mary’s willingness to accept the message from heaven that she was to carry the son of God.
“I don’t think I’ve really seen any images of Mary laughing,” he says. “But I wanted to do a Mary that laughed a lot and had a sense of humor and a real love of life.”
Joseph is focused on planning and wants to make sure everything’s right for his family, and learns to accept what he can’t change. “That gives Joseph room to grow, room to actually learn something from Mary, which is that at some point you have to let go and kind of let God take the wheel because not everything’s under your control,” Reckart says.
Levi and Rodriguez brought a contemporary humanity to the characters through their voice performances, which Reckart says he hopes will make Mary and Joseph accessible to the movie’s faith-based and general audiences.
Putting It All Together
Reckart asked character designer David Colman and production designer Craig Elliott to give the animals realistic anatomy. “We wanted them to feel really like animals,” he says. Among the more abstract notions the crew discovered was that most of the animals have horizontal profiles, while a human’s is vertical.
Magee-Cook says executive producer DeVon Franklin, a star in the faith-based entertainment community, played a big role in getting the all-star cast to sign on. And once actors began to fall into place, they played off each other really well.
“We got Oprah, Tyler and Tracy Morgan, and all three of them were so excited when they heard that that was going to be their trio,” says Magee-Cook. “And then when we got Steve Yeun, he and Keegan-Michael Key and Aidy Bryant all did Second City Chicago stuff. It’s like, without knowing it, we cast these little trios of people who had a connection already.”
Elliot says they wanted the film not to look like a stereotypical biblical epic, with ruins, rubble and desert. So he researched what Nazareth and Bethlehem looked like 2,000 years ago and found elements to play off of, such as discovering there were very specific and distinct styles of architecture for the homes of Romans and those of the natives.
“If we just do what was actually there, it will make a major difference,” he says. “We’re both historically accurate and we’re making it look great.”
Magee-Cook says previs worked with the storyboard artists to get shots fully worked out before being turned over to animation. “When we actually got into production…we had already translated it into a world that was doable so we could hand that to Cinesite,” she says.
Animation work started in January 2017 and the team peaked at around 70 or 80 animators. “They have a lot of animators who are starting out but who have shown a lot of promise, and we really saw a lot of growth even of individual animators from the beginning of production to the end,” Reckart says.
With the release nearing, Reckart says he hopes the movie connects with both faith-based and general audiences—and becomes something families can revisit every Christmas.
“I hope that this will be the movie that kids grow up with that introduces them to the story of the nativity,” he says. “And ultimately that it finds a sort of special place in the box of Christmas DVDs that every family has.”
Sony Pictures Animation’s The Star opens in theaters nationwide on November 17, 2017.
This story originally appeared in the December issue of Animation Magazine (No. 275).