(RNS) — Actress Kristin Chenoweth never really had thought about what the animals in the Christmas story must have felt, she said.
They’ve always been there — in the text of Luke’s Gospel, in carols like “Away in a Manger” and “The Friendly Beasts,” and in Nativity sets brought down from the attic every December.
But she said she only needed to look as far as her own dog, Thunder, to understand why the producers of “The Star” decided to make a movie of the first Christmas from the vantage point of four-legged creatures. Thunder “knows what kind of day I’m having, right? He knows if it’s a good day or a bad day, and those animals did, too.”
Chenoweth gives voice to a mouse named Abby in the animated retelling of Jesus’ birth in theaters this holiday season.
“The Star” connected with her own faith, she said. Chenoweth grew up in a Southern Baptist church and now identifies as a “nondenominational” Christian who is “accepting of everyone.”
“When I heard the story, what it was, (I thought) this is what I believe. I do believe in the birth of Christ and who he was when he walked the earth, so, yeah, this is something that is easy for me to do.”
“The Star” has been in the Top 10 at the box office since it opened the weekend before Thanksgiving, according to Box Office Mojo.
The animated movie stars Steven Yeun as the voice of Mary and Joseph’s donkey Bo; Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Tracy Morgan as the wise men’s three camels Deborah, Cyrus and Felix; and Aidy Bryant as Ruth, part of the flock shepherds watched by night. Everyone from Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen to Mariah Carey is credited with cameos in the film.
Chenoweth’s Abby overhears the angel’s announcement to Mary that she miraculously will give birth to Jesus, then rushes to tell every other animal she meets. She loves the character’s “positive voice,” and while no mice are named in scriptural accounts of Jesus’ birth, she joked there always has to be a mouse running around somewhere unseen.
What drew the actress to the project was the opportunity to tell a familiar story from a new viewpoint, not unlike the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,” a retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” in which she originated the role of the good witch Glinda, but which is written from the perspective of the “wicked” witch.
Presenting the story from the animals’ perspective helped the producers grapple with a challenge for anyone who tries to tell the story of Christ’s birth: How much creative license can one take with a story central to the beliefs of more than 2 billion people around the world?
The Bible doesn’t give many details about the creatures that might have been present at Christ’s birth other than mentioning the shepherd’s flocks.
“Doing this from a fresh perspective, I think, makes it new for everybody and can call our attention to really the craziness of all of this — that God chose to come, the king of the universe, born to peasants, born among the animals,” said director Tim Reckart.
Their Christian faith is one thing that attracted both Reckart and the film’s producer, DeVon Franklin, to the film.
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They consulted many pastors and other religious leaders on the script to make sure it accurately portrayed details of the Christmas story found in Scripture, said Franklin, who previously produced “Miracles From Heaven.”
They also went to great lengths to make sure the human characters’ Middle Eastern ethnicity and Jewish faith were accurately reflected in their appearances, according to Franklin.
“In other iterations of the story, it may not have been paying as close of attention to it, but for us, it was important and very close to our hearts,” he said.
In the end, Franklin said, he hopes the result fills a gap in the holiday movie genre — a Christmas movie that actually tells the story of the first Christmas, not of grinches, misers and down-on-their-luck businessmen — and in faith-based films in general — a major animated film.
Chenoweth predicts audiences of all ages and faiths will relate to “The Star.”
“Because it’s about love and it’s about family,” she said. “That’s the basis of any religion. It’s love one another, feed the poor, help each other — that’s really where God is, no matter what he or she looks like to people.”