By Janis Fontaine
The film Journey to Bethlehem, a musical retelling of the Nativity story, begins with a disclaimer: “Inspired by a true story — the greatest story ever told.”
Director Adam Anders’ goal was to make a family movie that tells the story of the birth of Jesus and competes with the best Christmas movies.
By filling the film with catchy pop songs and comedy gags (and a devoted donkey named Fig), the movie strays a bit from biblical accuracy, but the writers were careful not to abuse their poetic license. Their carefully diluted version makes an otherwise terrifying story of Roman soldiers killing newborns and teenage fugitives on the run palatable enough for a PG rating but engaging enough to appeal to adults.
Nearly 20 years ago, Anders realized that a void existed in Christmas movie fare. A musical not centered around Santa was missing from the genre. Then five years ago, producer
Alan Powell and Monarch Media came on board.
Powell and Anders had Glee in common and both were deeply Christian. Powell — who has a degree from bible college and was founder of the successful pop-Christian band Anthem Lights — says, “I believed in Adam, and I believed in the story, so I poured gasoline on it.”
Film companies hesitated, largely for financial reasons. Was it good business to make a movie about the Nativity? How much profit could they really expect to make on a Christian musical? But Powell, who says real magic happens when music and film come together, kept pushing until Sony Entertainment’s Affirm Films bit.
Powell says making a musical is about finding a balance of song and story. The rule, Powell says, “is that a character only sings when words can no longer do justice.”
Anders’ gift is his ability to slide the song into the dialogue so organically that you almost don’t notice the actors have started singing.
The soundtrack features 12 original songs written by Anders with his singer/songwriter wife, Nikki Anders, and songwriter/music producer Peer Astrom (High School Musical).
For Anders and his wife, whose first date was writing a song together, the release of the film is the fulfillment of a dream — a deeply personal undertaking where they felt God’s hand on theirs. Consider this: Anders was in Spain preparing to shoot the movie and they had not cast Mary. At 2 a.m. one day, Powell’s phone rang. Anders had found her: Fiona Palomo, a relative newcomer, is a Mexican-born actress who had appeared on the teen drama Outer Banks in 2023. “She never even had a callback,” Powell said.
Some would say she was a godsend.
“Our goal was to show these characters with some meat on their bones,” Powell said. And by flushing out the shadowy figures behind a well-known story — like Joseph, whom Milo Manheim portrays with such tender authenticity — the filmmakers illuminated the story in a new way. A touching moment comes when Mary tells Joseph that she was not the only person chosen for this. From that moment, his devotion and support and his love for Mary animate his every move.
The songs stand alone as lovely, lively, fun and even a little scary, and fans of Glee will surely recognize Anders’ signature on the musical. This is a film made by musicians in search of another way to tell the world about their love for Jesus Christ. The vocals are outstanding, even from the cast’s non-singer, A-list star Antonio Banderas.
What others are saying
The Christian Film Review said, “This is a must-see film and is not to be missed. Full of joy, hope and truth, it has to be one of the best and most epic Christmas movies of all time.”
But the National Catholic Register wasn’t so positive. Its criticisms of the film point mostly to the missing elements, like Mary’s fiat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
But in the film Mary is more conflicted: What will people think? Will this bring shame upon my family? Completely understandable reactions. But as Catholics revere Mary, the Blessed Mother, only the most pure and chaste of Marys would do. So the more the writers tried to humanize her, giving her real doubts and fears, the less Catholics were going to like it.
They asked, “Where is her Magnificat? If ever there was a place in a musical version of the Nativity story for a major song, this is it,” the National Catholic Register aid.
But Mary sings the ballad, “Mother to a Savior and King,” where she asks, “How can I carry your son when I need you to carry me?” and “Should a miracle feel like an anchor?”
It’s not very Catholic, but it’s very real and reminds us how brave Mary was.
Other critics called out Banderas’ acting as the evil Herod, saying he got too much screen time and that the lyrics of his song, “It’s Good to Be King,” could be seen to “dangerously border on the blasphemous.” And many audience members were confused by the appearance of Antipater, Herod’s first son, who isn’t part of any of the scriptures and is not the same Antipater Christians do know as the executioner of John the Baptist.
Grammy winner Joel Smallbone, who records and tours with his brother Luke as the Christian pop duo For King & Country, portrays Antipater Herod. Lecrae, a Christian rapper/hip-hop artist who won a Grammy Award in 2013 for Best Gospel Album, the first time that a hip-hop artist won, portrays a stunning Angel Gabriel.
Last word from producer
A diverse village of people brought this carefully crafted film to the screen, a concerted team effort, and one Powell is proud of. The married father of six said, “My hope was we’d make a family movie that people will watch together and laugh and sing and dance along to. I think the timing is right for this movie.
“But then, there’s never a wrong time to spread a message of love.”
Journey to Bethlehem is rated PG. It was filmed in and around the coast of Spain. Its runtime is 1 hour, 38 minutes. It’s in theaters now.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at email@example.com.
Pastor’s review of movie
By Andrew Hagen
As a committed Christian and pastor, I never tire of the story of the birth of Jesus. Our faith community believes that God saw the darkness of our lives and sent his son as a savior.
The mode of his arrival as a baby born to a poor family in a backwater village only reinforces the power of his identification with our lives and experiences.
Journey to Bethlehem succeeds when it reinforces that message and fails when it distracts from it.
It succeeds in showing us a young girl confused and apprehensive about being the mother of the long-awaited savior. It succeeds when it reminds us that her fiancé, Joseph, could have condemned her to stoning for the unexpected pregnancy. It succeeds when it portrays a king so evil that ordering the murder of mothers and babies is no great matter to him.
And it succeeds in reminding us of the lowly circumstances and location of Jesus’ birth.
Sadly, it fails when it makes Mary and Joseph’s romance far more important than the child they are bringing into the world. It fails when the three Wise Men are turned into the Three Stooges as comic relief. It fails when it inserts a strange “daddy issues” turn for Herod Antipater (although he did later plot to kill his dad). And it fails when the holy family heads off to Egypt as happy travelers rather than hunted refugees. And I really missed the shepherds.
Journey to Bethlehem is a good family outing to be followed up with reading the actual story and heading to church on Christmas Eve.
It is so much better than all the holiday movies that deliver Christmas without the Christ. For those who barely know the story, it may make them curious to make their own “journey to Bethlehem”: where a baby and good news await.
Andrew Hagen is senior pastor of Advent Ministries in Boca Raton.