The adorable children of St Bernadette’s in Coventry return for a second installment of Nativity, this time without the exclamation point. That’s because things don’t work quite as well the second time around, especially with insufferable teacher’s assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) still hanging about. This movie lacks a natural chemistry that guided the original story and sentiment and instead jerks forward like a hastily assembled Christmas play. The first film won me over because, despite its imperfections, it prioritised harried primary school teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman), who struggled to instill some real values in his students while nursing a broken heart. It was unglamorous and a bit of a slow burn, but the process also yielded some touching classroom moments.
This Danger in the Manger edition, however, is more concerned with creating frenzy and pathos, a result of putting batty Mr Poppy at the centre. Although new teacher Donald Peterson (David Tennant) fills the responsible adult void, the character has few meaningful exchanges with anyone, at least none that don’t feel obligatory. The film throws up a few weak obstacles for him to sort through; his father (Ian McNeice) frowns on his unambitious career choice while Donald’s overachieving twin, Roderick (Tennant’s hipster twin), just can’t be bothered. Happily, he and his wife (Joanna Page) are expecting their first child, but his home life holds little weight, either with the audience or with the other characters, since everyone is gripped by Song for Christmas fever.
The students, egged on by Mr Poppy, are desperate to join the televised singing contest to be held in Wales. The prize pot and the chance for national fame attracts St Bernadette’s old nemesis, Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) and his scarily talented show kids, who have prepared a Les Misérables-inspired Dickens medley. Roderick, a renowned director, also wants the spotlight on his intense boy band of choristers.
Eventually, this is a movie about the underdog; it’s Christmas after all. But it’s unevenly focused on the chase, on the physical journey to get over hills and dales to a castle in Wales. It leaves few moments of peace for any character to shine through with emotional clarity. Tennant is a non-factor, though Watkins, with a lesser part, really milks it. My ire is mostly directed at Mr Poppy and his enabler, actor Marc Wootton, who don’t so much hog the screen as they do jump, tumble, and splatter themselves all over it. While there is a positive energy buried beneath the unkempt mess, the responsible teacher in me can’t square with the onslaught of puerile antics, which include attacking teachers, kidnapping babies, and hopping abandoned rafts. It’s a relentless sideshow, and the most maddening thing is that Mr Poppy ends up being framed as the hero. His sage guidance not only helps the students but also Mr Peterson.
As with the first film though, the music proved to be a salve. Because the numbers are one-off performances by each of the contestants, there isn’t the consistency or cohesion of the pageant numbers that I adore for the original. Still, there is cheeky humor (‘All I want for Christmas is Christmas stuff’) and a rousing, kid-friendly campaign Christmas tune (‘Yes We Can’). They save the best for last though, and ‘Hawaii in My Heart’ deserves a spot on your holiday playlist.
‘Counting Down to Christmas’ by Shane and the Calendar Girls:
‘Snow Angel’ by Lloyd and the Snowballs:
‘Peace and Joy’ by St Cuthbert’s Choir:
‘Yes We Can’ by St Bernadette’s:
‘Born in the Hay’ by St Bernadette’s:
‘Hawaii in My Heart’ by St Bernadette’s:
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: David Tennant, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins, Jessica Hynes, Pam Ferris, Ian McNeice, Joanna Page
Time: 105 min
Country: United Kingdom