Following ‘The Star’: The birth of Christ from the animals’ point of view
Casey McCorry Dec. 21, 2017
Before Timothy Reckart directed “The Star,” he was an aspiring animation director studying in the U.K., and making what would soon be an Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated short about marriage. And much longer before that he was just a kid with a “monster” video camera, five siblings to cast, a Tucson desert landscape and plenty of ideas.
Catholic faith and art were two pillars that governed his family: time was set aside for prayer and Mass, and a portion of the fridge was set aside for Reckart’s homemade “fake blood concoction” for the films he would make. There was no doubt, from his earliest years, that Reckart was equipped with the perfect mix of creative and spiritual passion for his unique Hollywood mission.
Reckart’s first studio film, “The Star,” is an animated retelling of the Nativity from the perspective of the animals, specifically Bo, a donkey that carries Mary into Bethlehem. Compelled by the sight of a radiant star, Bo believes he is called to something greater than the circular mill-grinding existence he bears under a yolk.
“That star means something,” he tells a fellow donkey, and as if to convince himself, “I’m not going to be here forever.”
Through the support of his friend Dave, a mouthy dove, he is determined to seek the royal caravan he feels destined to be a part of. Much to his chagrin, he becomes part of a “lowlier” kind of caravan, as he, Dave, a bubbly sheep who has been separated from her flock, and three oddball camels become the unspoken heroes behind the traditional story of Jesus’ birth by rescuing Mary from the clutches of Herod’s ferocious guard dogs.
Approaching this story from the animal’s point of view allowed Reckart to invite children to find more meaning in a story that might have otherwise distanced them.
“Most kids encounter this story in the context of the Christmas pageant, which is extremely stilted, and there’s so little real humanity there. Here you are, you’re years old, and whether you’re playing Mary or Joseph, you’re trying to play the part of a parent who is welcoming their first child, and there’s no way that a kid can really do that,” he said.
“Mary and Joseph’s story is really a story about parents and parenting, but Christmas means something to everybody. By putting it through the eyes of the donkey the question is not so much about them, but what does this event mean for my life as a bystander?”
Far from being a bystander, Reckart was in the unique position of developing a likeliness, personality, demeanor, all the subtleties of some of the most beloved heroes from the Bible, some of whom don’t even have lines in Scripture.
“These characters are holy, they’re saints, they’re close to God, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t continually grow. And so I thought it was a really cool opportunity to show their humanity in a way that didn’t bring them down at all,” he said.
So maybe, as Reckart mused, Joseph the carpenter would be something like an engineer today. Maybe he was a bit of a detail-oriented worry wart who struggled when things didn’t go according to plan. And maybe Mary was a bit quirky and animal-loving. Maybe Zechariah was, as Reckart would say, “the blabbermouth,” and Elizabeth was “that kind of sarcastic wife that keeps him in check.”
For Reckart, this film was an opportunity to bring to life the heroes from his prayer life, the ones portrayed in the diptych on his desk, the ones he saw in awe as a child as “super holy,” but still had many idiosyncrasies we know nothing about.
“You know, of course, we don’t know if this is what they were like,” Reckart said. “I guess the goal was to make these characters feel alive, feel a part of your family.”
This made working with the actors his favorite part of making the film. It was his moment to bring “specificity and life to these characters that are alive to all of us who pray,” he said. “I could go to a session with Gina Rodriguez bringing Mary to life, and then go to my prayer later and discuss with Mary how it went, or talk to Jesus about how we were portraying his mother.”
“The Star’s” creation was a unique intercalary of the daunting challenges of depicting a sacred text with the daily tedium of more minute decisions. His day was a unique balance of channeling a divine story amid routine filmmaking tasks. The sacred, and the ordinary, and it was the supernatural guiding hand that kept him grounded. He recalled regularly looking at the diptych of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on his desk and praying,
“You know this is your movie, you’ve got to help me out here.”
It was the minutiae of his job that made Reckart identify most strongly with “The Star’s” leading character, Bo.
“His story is a story of vocation. The star appears and he feels called by it to go do something important and big, and he spends the whole movie trying to chase that. But in the end, what he’s called to do is something that doesn’t look so great on the outside; it’s just carrying Mary and Joseph, this random couple, into Bethlehem,” he said.
“Of course, it turns out by the end that what he’s done is the most important thing he ever could have done, and I think that that is basically the story of so many laypeople’s vocations.
Story of Bo really gets at is that you are called to do something great, you’re called to be a saint, but it’s not necessarily going to look so great on the outside, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great.”
While Reckart finds vocational greatness in the “ordinary,” his goals in Hollywood are guided by a great mission. “I think the power of film and media is to have an impact on the culture,” he said.
“We can have that impact both really direct and on the nose by bringing that sacred subject into the culture, but we can also have a more subtle but perhaps more penetrating effect on the culture by making films about heroism and sacrifice whether religion.
Think that’s what I’d like to do with my career: make films that speak to the themes that culture needs to hear.”
Filmmaking, for Reckart, is far from the glamorous impression it gives off, especially as an animator, but he finds a powerful purpose in each hour of labor,
“I’m never going to be Steven Spielberg,” he said, laughing, “but I want to do my job well. And if I am where God has called me to be and that means I’m living out the will of God, then that is the great thing I’m supposed to spend my whole life on.”
After the release of “The Star,” I think there will be many who hope that filmmaking is something Reckart spends his “whole life on.”