Nativity 3, family films and missed opportunities

Nativity 3 earned critical scorn, and a robust defence from its director. But is there a missed chance here, wonders Simon?

Over the weekend, I finally – at the behest of my children – caught up with Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey. I’m aware it’s not been the most popular film amongst critics (er, that would be an understatement), and the strength of feeling put across in reviews has led to its director, Debbie Isitt, responding with equal force.

Isitt invoked what is a fairly standard argument when met with a critical panning, arguing that she’s making a film for the audience, rather than the film press. “These critics are just so out of touch with what people like and want”, she told the Birmingham Mail. “Audiences love these films and will watch them over and over again”.

We’ve been down this road before already this year, with Michael Bay for one arguing that he doesn’t make his Transformers films for critics. And then, of course, a critical mauling failed in any way to stop Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie from cleaning up at the box office.

I confess I was intrigued, then. Earlier in the year, I argued that it was wrong to criticise fans of films such as Transformers: Age Of Extinction and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie for liking the films. That piece is here, and I still stand by it. Everybody has a fundamental right to like the films they like, without being lambasted for doing so. If any of you want my spirited defence of Crocodile Dundee 3, then by all means get in touch.

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With the Nativity movies, I’ve been split thus far. I enjoyed the first one, with Martin Freeman, and my children enjoyed it even more. I’d argue it’s the only one of the trilogy that keeps its focus on the children themselves for the most part, and is a more successful film as a consequence of that.

Nativity 2, I confess, I had no time for. It just didn’t work for me at all. The fundamental failing for me is the central character of Mr Poppy, who needs charm and warmth to work. Unfortunately, in the second film in particular, he’s comfortably one of the most irritating movie characters I’ve ever encountered. And I’ve sat through pretty much every Adam Sandler movie (and enjoyed more of them than I was supposed to).

Nativity 3, then. I think it’s a country mile away from the first film again, and perhaps a moderate improvement on the second movie at an absolute push. But to me, it felt like a feature-length version of Noel’s House Party, back when Noel’s House Party was long past its prime.

So for me, it didn’t do anything at all (well, Martin Clunes’s singing did, but that conversation’s for me and my ENT specialist).

However, I also sat there and concluded that Debbie Isitt had a point. Sure, she pulls out every fart joke she can find, and sure, the logic gaps – in a film where you’re not supposed to really worry about such things – are so gaping that you can’t help but sit there and wonder why at least one or two weren’t picked up. But a Sunday afternoon screening at the Showcase Cinema in Walsall was full of children laughing along.

I glanced around from time to time and didn’t notice the adults that much engaged with the film (the snoring from one man behind me was a bit of a giveaway), but the younger members of the audience? They certainly seemed to be enjoying it. My children did too, as it happened.

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However, I did feel a pang of frustration. As we walked down the corridor to the screen, we had to walk past signs telling us what was showing in each auditorium that we passed. And right next door was Paddington.

In a year that’s hardly been vintage for family entertainment, Paddington is a film that’s really stood out. As have the likes of The Boxtrolls, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and large portions of The Book Of Life. Each of these has a higher budget and a different intent to a film such as Nativity 3, but the rules of modern cinema are that it matters not whether your film cost £1m or £100m to make, it’s still £8 to see it (depending on where you live). We on the other side of the box office counter are charged the same price.

My frustration is thus this: I believe children deserve better films.

My friend also took his children to see Nativity 3, and we both agreed that the important thing was that our offspring had a good time. Which they did. However, to be able to take a family to a modern multiplex is not a cheap business. Notwithstanding the fact that a family ticket cost us £26, there are the, er, ‘other costs’ that come with such a cinema trip. On top of that, how often is it possible just to squeeze the time for everyone to go out and catch a film together? That’s something that seems to get harder and harder. Time is as important a currency as cold, hard cash here. If not more so.

Our family – with the exception of the excellent Saturday and Sunday morning film clubs that many cinemas run – doesn’t get to go to the cinema en masse often enough. Thus, when we do get to do it, I want the film to be special. I don’t want it to be a time filler, a surrogate babysitter, or something that leaks out of everyone’s head in under an hour.

That was my big frustration, as I’ve written before, with Rio 2 earlier in the year. It was glorious to look at, but when I asked my children what it was about an hour later, none of them could really tell me a single thing it. The Boxtrolls? They talked about it for ages.

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Nativity 3, for me, fell into the Rio 2 camp. In this case, they couldn’t remember the songs, they just remembered the fart jokes and donkey shit. And whilst I fundamentally believe that cinema is an entertainment medium, I do also think that film can do more than fill space and time.

I’ve written before about Frankenweenie, for instance, a family film but one that opens up issues such as death and mortality in an accessible way. Frozen, too, talks about loneliness at its heart, whilst name any number of Pixar films, and the ambition in the idea alone is crucial. Or what about Millions, for slightly older children? There’s an awful lot going on in something like that.

I’m not joining the chorus of hatred towards Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey. But I am nonetheless suggesting that taking a family to the cinema is an opportunity, not just to entertain children, but also to hook them in. To give them access to a piece of material in an environment where it’s supposed to be seen, that might just unlock a conversation, an idea, a favourite moment, or – in the best case – an ongoing love of cinema.

That, for me, is the missed opportunity of going to see Nativity 3. It doesn’t do that, nor does it really try. It’s a throwaway piece of fun, that’s designed to be no more than that, and succeeds on those terms for its target audience. Stick it next to the High School Musical trilogy though, and those films, I’d argue, are far more likely to inspire their target audience to do something once they’ve left the cinema. And that’s not a matter of budget, star power or scale me. It’s simple, sheer ambition. For me, the first Nativity had some of that, the sequels simply don’t.

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