Journey to Bethlehem Parent Guide
With its tonal chaos and plastic pop-style soundtrack, this film fails to live up to the power of its subject.
Parent Movie Review
The promotional poster for Journey to Bethlehem boasts the tagline “The Greatest Story Ever Comes Alive!” In this, the studio is uncharacteristically restrained. For there isn’t just one story here; there are several and they are all at odds with the Biblical account, and often with each other.
At the center of the film is Mary (Fiona Palomo), a young woman trapped by the social conventions of her time and betrothed against her will to Joseph (Milo Manheim). The couple find themselves in a standard rom-com with a meet-cute, some squabbling, and a firefly-illuminated scene where they fall in love. The romance hits the rocks when a blinged-up angel Gabriel (Lecrae) appears to Mary (in a process reminiscent of a glittery Star Trek transporter) and informs her that she will miraculously give birth to the Son of God. The dialogue is non-canonical, but it gets the message across. Also non-scriptural is Joseph’s response to the situation. Instead of being reassured by an angel and urged to marry his fiancée, Joseph has a dream in which two versions of himself engage in Ninja-style combat over whether or not to remain betrothed. Any guesses as to which way this goes?
Joseph’s decision is critical because his rom-com life is about to cross paths with that of Herod the Great (Antonio Banderas), ruthless King of Judea, who is starring in a badly scripted tale of intrigue. The insomniac monarch struts around his throne room (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Cave of Wonders in Disney’s Aladdin), celebrating his power and merciless rule. (“Mine is the kingdom, Mine is the power, Mine is the glory” he belts out, pop-diva style.) When three Magi come seeking information about the birth of a new king, the paranoid ruler begins plotting the death of the potential challenger to his throne. Descending to new depths, Herod orders his son Antipater (Joel Smallbone) to search all of Judea for an unwed, pregnant peasant girl and kill her and her child.
As for the three kings, they are wandering about in a clumsy comedy, populated by stock characters and bad jokes. There’s vague muttering about reading the stars, a fair bit of travel-by-map, some whining about camels, and quite a bit of confused gift-giving. The men are supposed to be Magi – wise men from afar – but there’s precious little wisdom to be found and not much sense either.
Competing with the tonal chaos of the film is its soundtrack. Considering that Christmas is the inspiration for some of the most beautiful music in the Western world, it’s astounding that the music in this film is so bad. It starts off well, with a haunting introduction to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and then deteriorates rapidly to the adolescent angst of “Mary’s Getting Married”. When the lyrics aren’t grossly twisting the Lord’s Prayer or Handel’s Messiah, they are serving up bad rhymes and extended exposition.
I’m not complaining about this movie because I have an anti-Christian agenda. To the contrary, I am a Bible-reading Sunday School teacher who cherishes the accounts of Christ’s birth found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. I am frustrated with this film because it turns a story of wonder and reverence into a bad musical comedy that makes a hash of the scriptural record. Instead of leaving viewers gratefully pondering the love of God, this is a film that simply offers questions like “Why does Herod have a Spanish accent while his son has an English accent?”, “Why is Mary wearing a fur-trimmed hood that looks like it came from Doctor Zhivago?”, “Are we supposed to believe that Mary has a guard donkey?” and “Who on earth thinks that it really snowed when Jesus was born?” Rather than being a heartwarming gift for seasonal moviegoers, Journey to Bethlehem feels like the lump of coal in our cinematic stocking.
Directed by Adam Anders. Starring Antonio Banderas, Milo Manheim, Fiona Palomo. Running time: 98 minutes. Theatrical release November 10, 2023. Updated November 11, 2023
Watch the trailer for Journey to Bethlehem
Journey to Bethlehem
Rating & Content Info
Why is Journey to Bethlehem rated PG? Journey to Bethlehem is rated PG by the MPAA for thematic elements.
Violence: It’s implied that a man is going to be tortured. A ruler orders the murder of pregnant women and babies. An angry man throws a beverage container to the ground. A woman hits a man with a floral bouquet.
Sexual Content: A husband and wife kiss.
Alcohol / Drug Use: A man drinks wine and is apparently intoxicated.
Page last updated November 11, 2023
Journey to Bethlehem Parents' Guide
Is the Christmas story meaningful to you? Why or why not? What’s the source of your religious opinions? Do you have a family religious tradition? Are you committed to it?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
You can read the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth here.
There are an extraordinary number of beautiful books to help children understand the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. For very young children, we recommend Christmas in the Manger. This tactile board book is written by Nola Buck and illustrated by Felicia Bond.
Also well suited for small children with busy fingers is Joey Chou’s Make & Play Nativity. This “book” features a punch-out cardboard nativity that kids can make, play with, and display with no risk of destroying a precious family heirloom.
If you’re looking for picture books, we suggest Who Is Coming to Our House? Told from the perspective of the animals in the stable, this book is written by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff. Room for a Little One takes a similar approach and is written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Jason Cockroft. Who Was Born This Special Day? is in a similar vein, but Leonid Gore’s luminous illustrations pair nicely with Eve Bunting’s gentle prose.
Newberry-award-winning author Katherine Paterson writes a rich, poetic text from Mary’s perspective in her book, The Night of His Birth, which is illustrated by Lisa Aisato.
Written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher, Refuge tells a part of the story not often covered in kids’ books – the flight to Egypt in search of safety from Herod’s murderous plots.
The Magi get their turn in Tomie dePaola’s colorfully illustrated Story of the Three Wise Kings.
The rhyme of the familiar Santa story is recast with a nativity focus in ‘Twas the Evening of Christmas. It's written by Glenys Nellist and illustrated by Elena Selivanova.
If pop-up books are beloved by your kids (as they are by ours), you can get their attention with The Nativity. Author and illustrator Francesca Crespi provides six gilded pop-up scenes to tell the story in three dimensions.
Older readers who cherish the rich legacy of Christmas art will appreciate The Christmas Story, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Featuring centuries of classic paintings, this book is a cultural touchstone with centuries of devotion behind it.
Related home video titles:
For a dramatic retelling of the accounts of Jesus’ birth (without the song-and-dance numbers), the whole family can watch The Nativity Story.
Geared to young viewers, The Star offers an animated account of the nativity, told from the perspective of the donkey. (This donkey also takes center stage in Disney’s 1978 animated short The Small One.) The crew from Veggie Tales do their manic best to share the reason for the season in The Star of Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas shows the titular hero rediscovering the holiday’s message amidst the festive chaos.