The First Christmas
Cast: Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Aidy Bryant, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Plummer, Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Timothy Reckart
Running Time: 86 minutes
Synopsis: In AFFIRM Films and Sony Pictures Animation's The Star, a small but brave donkey named Bo yearns for a life beyond his daily grind at the village mill. One day Bo finds the courage to break free and ends up befriending newlyweds Joseph and Mary. Mary's kindness soon sets Bo on the adventure of his dreams. On his journey, he teams up with Ruth, a loveable sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave, a dove with lofty aspirations. Along with three wisecracking camels and some eccentric stable animals, Bo and his new friends follow the Star and become unlikely heroes in the greatest story ever told – the first Christmas.
Release Date: November 30th, 2017
About The Production
How do you tell one of the most famous stories ever recorded and bring it to the screen in a fresh, new way? This was the challenge facing the filmmakers behind The Star, AFFIRM Films and Sony Pictures Animation's family film about the events leading up to the very first Christmas.
'It's the Nativity story from the point of view of the animals, and in this film, we follow Bo, who is the donkey that carries Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem," explains director Timothy Reckart.
'We looked at it as the greatest story never told," kids executive producer DeVon Franklin. Having previously produced the faith-based hit Miracles from Heaven and overseen the blockbuster Heaven Is for Real as an executive at Columbia Pictures, Franklin was inspired to translate the meaning of the story beyond the literal telling into a journey about the choices we all make in our daily lives that have an impact and, eventually, fit into the framework of the human story at the heart of it all. 'It says a lot about teamwork, stepping outside of their own somewhat narrow perspectives and working together. Our hero, Bo the donkey, needs all of the other animals to help to become successful. It's also about hope"you've got to believe in the impossible for it to happen."
'It's about how something that seems small can be bigger than it looks on the outside. Bo has been looking to do something important, and he starts seeking that in a self-aggrandizing way," says Reckart. 'Along the journey, by doing a small thing – helping these two people, which, for all he knows, are just some random couple – he winds up doing the most important thing he could ever achieve. Greatness comes in the most humble appearance, which is the message of the Christmas story itself."
It was the world's familiarity with the story that excited the director. 'Most people have some knowledge of it, and that presents a wonderful opportunity," says Reckart. 'Of course, the challenge is that people may feel that they know the story, they've seen it. But we can make the most of it by letting some of those elements take place off-screen, and look at what might have been going on in the background, or ask questions like -What were the camels doing at that moment?' That awareness of the story allows us to veer off into the corners and shine a light on other things going on and tell new stories in the midst of the familiar."
'We found opportunities for fun and invention," says Franklin. 'Audiences aren't coming for the documentary or the historical exposition – they're coming for enjoyment and creativity. I think we found ways to present Mary and Joseph as recognisable characters who laugh, who are afraid, who find themselves at the center of this amazing story and display their humanity throughout it all."
About The Music
Grammy winner Mariah Carey wrote and performs the title track for The Star's soundtrack, which is also loaded with music from some of today's top artists. 'What would a Christmas movie be without Christmas music?" says DeVon Franklin. The soundtrack for the film features a compilation of Christmas classics old and new that not only perfectly fit the film, but make the perfect soundtrack for the season.
Leading the way is Mariah Carey. One of the most popular and acclaimed performers of all time, with multiple Grammy Awards, 20 World Music Awards, 11 American Music Awards, 32 Billboard Music Awards, and 18 #1 hits – a record for a female solo artist – Carey's love for the season is well-known and reflected in her two bestselling Christmas albums. For 'The Star," the lead single and title track for the film, Carey reteamed with Marc Shaiman, a Grammy-, Emmy-, and Tony-winner whose five Oscar® nominations show his range – they include nods for his original songs 'A Wink and a Smile" from Sleepless in Seattle and 'Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. With Carey, Shaiman previously co-wrote and co-produced tracks for Carey's album 'Merry Christmas II You." Carey also recorded, along with Whitney Houston, 'When You Believe," the Academy Award® winner for Best Original Song for The Prince of Egypt.
'Mariah Carey is nothing less than a living legend. That's why, from day one, when we talked about the music, the number one name was Mariah Carey," Franklin continues. 'Now, we can all dream, but when Mariah said yes to the film, all of us were excited and we were shocked – as much as we thought it would be great, you don't always get your first choice. She came to the studio with Marc Shaiman and I showed them a few scenes from the movie. Well, as soon as I finish showing them the scenes, they go into a booth with a piano and start writing. Less than 48 hours later, Mariah calls and says, -Can you come down to the studio? We've finished the song.' When I heard it, it is truly one of the most inspirational songs I have ever heard. And that is the power of Mariah Carey and Marc Shaiman. She felt the inspiration of the film: there still is hope if we only look up."
'This song is going to inspire you; it is going to bring you hope," says Franklin. 'I don't think I've ever heard a Mariah Carey song like this."
'The song was inspired by the beautiful way in which the story of Christmas is told in the film," says Carey. 'I thought about the star of Bethelhem while writing this song, but also about following your heart, following your dreams."
'I've loved Christmas since I was a kid," Carey continues, 'even when we didn't have any money and my mother would wrap fruit for a Christmas gift. It wasn't about the gift – I just loved the spirit of Christmas."
'When Mariah Carey walks in a room, you know -a star' has arrived," says Shaiman. 'But when it came time to co-write our song for The Star, she became only a great songwriter intent on getting her love of Christmas into the words and music. And when our song was complete, she proceeded to sing a thrilling vocal, filled with that passion. It was my honor to be able to share and help illuminate her joy."
The soundtrack is rounded out by Christmas songs from many of today's top acts. Fifth Harmony joins with 'Can You See," another original song for the movie. Among the Christmas classics, Kirk Franklin performs a reinterpretation of 'We Three Kings," Casting Crowns turn in 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow," and Yolanda Adams records 'O Holy Night."
About The Characters And The Voice Cast
'Watching this cast work was really inspiring. The thing that really surprised me was how each of these artists approached their particular roles," says Reckart. Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, and Tracy Morgan all became the perfect counterpoints to each other – Tyler as the self-appointed leader who thinks he's smarter than he actually is; Tracy as his belligerent, hilarious brother; and Oprah as the wise camel who is the only one who may actually see what's going on. Kelly Clarkson plays her sleep-deprived horse in a way we can all recognise – like it's 2 a.m., you're hanging with your friends, and suddenly everything is hilarious in a way it isn't in the mid-afternoon. The actors all made these characters leap off the page."
Bo (Steven Yeun)
Small donkey, big dreams
He's a pint-sized donkey who wholeheartedly believes he is destined for a bigger purpose...greatness awaits him outside the mill walls!
Steven Yeun of 'The Walking Dead" brings to life this little donkey with a big heart. 'Even though Bo is in a pretty dire situation, he's pretty hopeful," he says. 'He has really large dreams. But as his plans start to go awry, he starts to doubt himself and take back all of that ambition he started with... but the universe will tell him in other ways that he's just as important as he ever thought he was. He finds something within himself bigger than anything he ever imagined."
It's a role that Yeun could recognise. 'Bo is an underdog," he says. 'He sometimes puts limitations on himself. I saw that in myself – I was an immigrant to this country, and there were limitations that I would place on myself based on what I saw. Bo comes to a full realization that he has much more potential than he thinks he has, and that's something I very much relate to."
'I think Bo is a lot like us," says Reckart. 'He's a character that dreams of doing something remarkable, and he knows in his heart that he's meant to do something great. I feel everyone has a conviction that they are here to do something, that they're here for a reason. Bo's just trying to figure out what. He starts out with a mistaken idea of what that is, but through his journey, he finds his purpose. On top of everything else that this story does, I feel that drive and that individual search for purpose will resonate with everyone."
Mary (Gina Rodriguez)
Bravely embraces her destiny A strong, confident, and optimistic young woman who always treats others with love and kindness"especially Bo.
Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez, the star of 'Jane the Virgin," plays the role. She says that while you might think it would be intimidating to play a role like Mary, she turned for inspiration to the greatest role models in her life. 'I think Mary's strength exists in all women, so I pulled from my own life, from the women around me who show that kind of strength every day," she says. 'I played her like the way my mother walks and talks, and the way my sisters are with their children."
Rodriguez was also inspired in her performance by her grandmother's faith. 'I've been researching this role my whole life, growing up in a very Catholic household with a grandmother who was not only super faithful, but lived by the faith and gave it to others."
Joseph (Zachary Levi)
A humble carpenter, loyal husband, and friend to Mary, and understandably anxious about the extraordinary task before him.
Zachary Levi (Tangled) says that the roles of Bo and Joseph are on similar tracks. 'They're on separate journeys, but they've both strong-willed and independent spirits," he says. 'At first, they don't exactly endear themselves to each other, but as they are forced together, they break each other down – their hearts soften. Joseph begins to realize that Bo is a real hero who would do everything he can, including potentially saving Joseph and Mary's lives, and appreciates it.
Dave (Keegan-Michael Key)
The wise-cracking best friend
A dove with a big personality and Bo's only friend. He knows that the Royal Caravan is the place for a bird like him – if only he can keep Bo on track! 'Keegan-Michael Key brought so much energy and heart to Dave," says Reckart.
'The -dance of the royal dove,' which is one of my favorite scenes, was built around some scat singing that Keegan completely improvised. He scatted for two minutes straight. It was amazing! All of us were holding our breath because we didn't want to ruin the take!"
Ruth (Aidy Bryant)
Fluffy, friendly and flocky
An adorably smart and helpful sheep who left her flock to follow the new star in the sky. Now that she has a new friend who also thinks the star is special, she hopes to follow it together.
Thaddeus (Ving Rhames) & Rufus (Gabriel Iglesias)
Vicious palace dogs
Thaddeus is focused on the mission. Rufus is focused on his next meal. Both are intent on hunting down Mary, Joseph, and Bo.
'Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias make such a great comedic odd couple," says Reckart. 'Ving has this deep, slow voice that's so commanding, and in comparison, Gabriel is practically chirping his lines, dancing around with this manic energy. They're very fun to watch together."
Cyrus (Tyler Perry), Felix (Tracy Morgan), Deborah (Oprah Winfrey)
The three not-so-wise camels
Cyrus is a know-it-all, Felix is not sure if he knows anything, and Deborah is the one actually paying attention. These three will do more than just carry the Wise Men.
'The Star is one of the coolest ways of telling this story, because it's so fun," says Perry. 'Just when I thought there was no other way to be able to tell the story of Christmas and the birth of Christ, here comes this incredibly genius idea to tell it through the eyes of a camel. It's very true to the scripture, but approaches the story in a fresh, fun way that will make it entertaining and inspiring for audiences of all ages."
'What makes this movie so unique is that it's told with such humor – it is delightful," says Winfrey. 'I grew up going to Sunday school and know all of these stories very well, but I've never seen it expressed this way. If nothing else, I think it's wonderful for families to be able to come together for an experience of being with each other and being inspired through joy and laughter."
Winfrey and Perry both say they were inspired to join the cast by being part of a trio with Morgan. 'The three of us playing these roles, playing off each other, worked well because it was great chemistry," says Perry. 'Who doesn't love Tracy Morgan? He's hysterical. And Oprah's one of the funniest people – she's always so serious, but she's very funny. I'm telling you, she could have been a stand-up comedian – she is that funny."
Leah (Kelly Clarkson), Zach (Anthony Anderson) & Edith (Patricia Heaton)
These animals are anything but stable
Residents of the most famous stable in history who haven't been able to sleep for nine months – ever since that star appeared in the sky. Zach the Goat is nervous and paranoid, Edith the Cow is cool and just wants some peace, and Leah the Horse thinks the beauty of the spotlight is worth missing some sleep.
Grammy Award winner Kelly Clarkson, who plays Leah, says that playing a character suffering from a lack of sleep was maybe not a huge stretch. 'I have four children, so I'm sleep deprived," she kids. 'Also, it was cool to be able to play a horse – I own a horse, because my daughter is an equestrian. It felt like the right time to play a Southern Belle who hadn't had sleep in nine months."
For Clarkson, it was gratifying to play a character in a story about faith. 'For me personally, it's so important – without faith, it would be a very lonely life," she says. 'I have to have faith in something bigger, the majestic world around us. And that's what all of these characters are looking for – they're all looking to be part of something greater than themselves."
'I was so surprised when I read the script, because it was funny while still honoring this wonderful, timeless story," says Heaton. 'There's adventure and a lot of action – I think the writers did an amazing job of bringing a completely new viewpoint to a story we all love and have heard all our lives."
And The Star may just be what we all need this season, Heaton continues. 'It's easy, as we all know, to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season," she says. 'It's fun, it's festive, but it can get to be overwhelming. So to be able to go to the theater with your entire family – from grandparents to the little ones and everybody in-between – and just relax and enjoy this new telling of this story is a great break for everyone to bond."
King Herod (Christopher Plummer)
A king, threatened and deadly Contemptuous ruler of Judea determined to destroy the coming newborn King and ruin the first Christmas.
Abby (Kristin Chenoweth)
Small mouse with a big mouth
After unexpectedly being present for the moment that started it all, this little mouse has a big tale to tell.
The Tony and Emmy Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth says that in some ways she's just like her murine counterpart. 'She's little – I can relate to that. She's got an interesting speaking voice – I can relate to that as well. But when she just happens on this big secret, what does she do with it? Does she keep it inside? No, she runs and tells the whole town. I admire that about Abby, how different she is from me. I know it seems like I have a big mouth and won't shut up, but I have a tendency to go into a corner and keep things to myself. There's a part of me that wishes I had a megaphone instead of feeling shy or embarrassed."
Old Donkey (Kris Kristofferson)
Life in a mill isn't so bad…
A curmudgeon and longtime worker at the mill " he wants Bo to stop wasting time with big dreams. But, there is something about the little donkey that even the hardest heart can't resist.
Elizabeth (Delilah) And Zechariah (Joel Mccrary)
Surprised and doting parents Mary's plain-talking cousin and her affable husband who were surprised with a baby of their own, John.
'Elizabeth is Mary's older cousin and a mama herself," says Delilah. 'It's her job to convince Mary to have a very difficult conversation with Joseph. She's an encourager – Mary is going through a very tough time in her life, and Elizabeth is there to tell her that she needs to get honest with Joseph."
Caspar (Joel Osteen)
One of the wisest of men
Having traveled far across the land to be there to greet the new king, Caspar and his two traveling companions can't believe they went to the wrong place.
Release Date: November 30th, 2017