With some catchy songs and an endearing, playful tone, Journey to Bethlehem will satisfy audiences looking for something wholesome and uplifting to watch this Christmas season.
About the “Journey to Bethlehem”
Christmas movies are as much of a staple of the holiday season as lights, candy canes, and carols. While many festive films feature Santa and his reindeer, Journey to Bethlehem keeps the focus on the deeper meaning for the season. All the familiar elements of the nativity story are present, but they are offered in an unfamiliar way—as a musical.
I’ll be honest. When it comes to personal taste, a low-budget, sentimental, faith-based musical is not really my cup of eggnog. And yet, while Journey to Bethlehem is an easy movie to nitpick and criticize, it is a difficult one to feel any cynicism toward. Yes, it has as much “cheese” as a Little Caesar’s hot-n-ready pizza, but the film is endearingly earnest. It is so overpoweringly wholesome and inoffensive and has enough heart and quality craftsmanship that I suspect it will satisfy its intended audience.
The decision to turn the familiar nativity story into a musical gives it a unique identity. Disney’s live-action Aladdin (2019) gave princess Jasmine a new song called “Speechless,” and Journey to Bethlehem is essentially that song spread into a full-length film and applied to a biblical narrative. The movie is The Chosen meets High School Musical meets a church nativity play—with all the good and bad that comes from each.
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There’s an unexpectedly playful, self-aware tone that embraces its silliness and disarms any cynicism. Some Christians may find the light-hearted approach a little too irreverent given the subject matter, but there is something amusing about the angel Gabriel (played by hip-hop artist Lecrae) nervously rehearsing his monumental speech to Mary or the three magi poking fun at the uncertain nature of myrrh as a gift. Journey to Bethlehem never crosses the line into “spoof” territory, but it certainly presents itself with a knowing smile. It’s corny at times, but it’s clearly having a lot of fun.
This film is a musical, so there are plenty of songs to go around. Despite beginning with a traditional rendering of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the music quickly develops an anachronistic modern sound (anyone expecting classic Christmas carols should ready themselves instead for pop music and Roman soldiers doing TikTok dances in the streets). The songs themselves are solid, even if the film lacks that one infectious smash hit usually needed to elevate a musical. I’ve had several of the tunes jingling around in my head for several days. The film balances upbeat and peppy songs with emotional power ballads, offering enough variety to keep it interesting.
Speaking of interesting, Antonio Banderas is in this movie! He plays King Herod, and he is great. He steals every scene he is in with a delightfully hammy performance. The rest of the cast is rounded out by relative unknowns, with Mary (Fiona Palomo) and Joseph (Milo Manheim) giving capable performances as the doughy-eyed lovers.
Journey to Bethlehem is largely Mary’s story. The historical Mary is arguably the most revered woman who ever lived, and there is value in humanizing her (even if it veers a bit into cliched territory). The movie is an effective reminder that Mary was not only a real person but a young person during that first Christmas. The movie explores the emotional toll her situation took on her in ways rarely portrayed in nativity stories. But with the focus on Mary, the heart of that ancient Christmas story—the significance of Christ’s birth—gets a little bit lost. When Jesus is born, the moment feels almost more like a personal victory for Mary than a monumental, history-shaking, divine event.
As a whole, Journey to Bethlehem succeeds at being the type of film it wants to be and will land well with its intended audience. It’s all a bit hokey, but its heart is firmly in the right place, and the musical aspect sets it apart in the crowded holiday movie genre. With some catchy songs and an endearingly playful tone, Journey to Bethlehem will satisfy Christian families looking for something fun, wholesome, and uplifting to watch this Christmas season.
Faith in God’s Bigger Purposes
Christians familiar with the biblical text know that God clearly had an important purpose for Mary’s life. What we may not consider is what her own plans were. What personal dreams or ambitions were radically rerouted by Jesus’ miraculous birth? Journey to Bethlehem explores that question.
Taking creative license, Mary is depicted as a headstrong young lady with dreams of being a teacher and marrying for love. The rug is pulled out from beneath these ambitions, first by her arranged marriage to Joseph and next by the revelation that she is to give birth to the messiah.
In speaking with her mother on the night of her engagement, she asks, “Why even make plans if everything is decided for me?” Her mother responds, “Sometimes God’s plans for us are even bigger than we can imagine. You must let your faith guide you.”
To a lesser degree, Joseph must navigate a similar struggle, swept up in a life he couldn’t have imagined and for which he is unprepared. Together, the characters sing, “We have to trust what we don’t understand. It could be a part of God’s plan.”
In this way, Journey to Bethlehem is not just about the ancient Christmas story; it’s about the faith journey we all experience. Mary and Joseph had a special and exalted task from God, but all Christians are called to live by faith; to renounce self, pick up our cross and follow Jesus into the unknown (Matthew 16:4).
Language: The closest the film gets is the refrain during one song’s chorus, “So stinking good.”
Violence: A prisoner is shown chained and presumably about to be tortured, but it’s played comedically, and no actual harm is shown being done to him.
Sexuality: None, other than Mary singing about being a virgin. Also, in an early scene Joesph is shown flirting with Mary despite knowing that they are both engaged (but unaware that it is to each other).
Other: Several characters are shown drinking and talking about wine.