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In the post-Passion of the Christ era, it is little surprise that controversy swirls around this year's cinematic rendering of The Nativity Story.

Inconvenient births: Difficult journeys in The Nativity Story and Happy Feet 

click to enlarge Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born in The Nativity Story - PHOTO BY JAIMIE TRUEBLOOD/NEW LINE PRODUCTIONS
  • Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/New Line Productions
  • Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born in The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story
Opens Friday throughout the Triangle

In the post-Passion of the Christ era, it is little surprise that controversy swirls around this year's cinematic rendering of The Nativity Story. That the hullabaloo has nothing to do with onscreen events is somewhat unexpected and, in a roundabout way, a byproduct of the turgidity of this by-the-Good Book account of the Virgin Birth.

Barring a diagnosis of parthenogenesis, when the 16-year-old, unwed Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) announced last month that she was pregnant, those producing a film about the birth of Jesus did not exactly see the coincidence of her portraying the pregnant, unwed Mary as a marketing plus. Suddenly, Castle-Hughes was cancelling press junkets, and the guest list for the first-ever premiere of a feature film at the Vatican did not include the actress portraying the mother of Christ.

One can reasonably forgive anyone believing this public relations brouhaha might portend the film's edginess, especially considering that director Catherine Hardwicke's only two previous films were portraits of teenage rebellion: Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. Indeed, a scene where Joseph (Oscar Isaac) almost joins an angry mob threatening to stone Mary to death for her apparent transgression almost ushers in just such a radical verve, until Hardwicke pulls back to reveal the episode is only a dream sequence. Still, Hardwicke presents an ethnically credible cast comprised largely of actors of Arab and Persian descent, and hints at the scandal accompanying Mary's mysterious pregnancy, which can be found in the Qur'an and Apocrypha but not the canonical Gospels.

In cobbling his script from all four Gospels and a variety of other sources, screenwriter Mike Rich incorporates all the rote, dispersed elements of the Nativity—the appearance of an angel before both Mary and Joseph prior to Jesus' birth; Mary's extended visit with her pregnant sister Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo); Mary and Joseph's arduous journey to Bethlehem in obedience to a census ordered by Caesar Augustus; and visits to the manger by shepherds and Magi. The paranoia of King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) over the perceived threat to his crown by a prophesized newborn "king" results in the Massacre of the Innocents described in the Gospel of Matthew.

With all this provocative potential at work, the real pity is how conventional this PG-rated final product turns out. The visual effects are on par with a made-for-cable television movie, while the costumery and postiche could have been borrowed from a high school drama department. There is little intrigue once the narrative starts down its inexorable path toward a sacred birth, staged with as much spontaneity as the living Nativities you see outside churches every December.


click to enlarge He's cute and he can't be stopped: Mumble in Happy Feet - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROTHERS

Happy Feet
Now playing

Another breed of messiah forms the basis for director George Miller's Happy Feet, an odd animated spectacle that somehow manages to suffer from both overambition and inanity. Spawned from the machinations of March of the Penguins, this bird-brained eco-musical posits that the family Spheniscidae are not only hatched under daunting natural obstacles, but born bearing intrinsic familiarity with an anthology of late 20th-century American pop music.

This meandering, meaningless tale is part The Jazz Singer, part Footloose, and the song-and-dance star is poor Mumble (voice by Elijah Wood), who has a voice to shatter ice and the hoofing skills of Savion Glover (via motion-capture technology). Mumble and his happy flippers are shunned until he wanders south of the glacier into a waddle of Hispanic birds who love the way Mumble shakes his tail feather. Along the way, we are "treated" to endless hyperkinetic group dances and the ear-splitting sounds of Nicole Kidman cooing Prince's "Kiss," Brittany Murphy caterwauling a gospel-version of Queen's "Somebody to Love," and Hugh Jackman playing the obligatory disapproving dad named Memphis who also fancies Elvis impersonations (natch). When the penguins' food supply starts disappearing, the tribe elders blame Mumble and his pagan influence and banish him from the colony.

It is here that Happy Feet takes a decidedly unhappy turn when Mumble declares it his destiny to save his species by tracking down the "alien" humans and convincing them to stop polluting and overfishing his Antarctic home.

Happy Feet is a special kind of awful, a contradictory fiction where human encroachment on an endangered ecosystem is halted only when the inhabitants of that environment replicate Western pop culture and thereby prove their entertainment value. It is a film that in part preaches racial, religious and cultural harmony yet has the execrable Robin Williams voicing dual stereotypes, first the worst instance of a gringo actor portraying a Mexican since Charlton Heston in A Touch of Evil, followed by Williams donning auditory blackface as a rockhopper "televangelist" named Lovelace. For good measure, toss in some occasional sexually charged subtext, as when Lovelace urges his congregation to "go forth and multiply" and retires with his harem to "the couch of indulgence." Good luck explaining that one to your 6-year-old.

Miller, helming his first film since the terrific Babe: Pig in the City in 1998, fashions a visually stunning milieu featuring some of the most realistic animated animal and human reproductions yet seen on the silver screen. Yet, like its tuxedo-clad protags, Happy Feet is all dressed up with no place to go.

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