Jason Watkins

Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?!

nativity 3 dude wheres my donkey

That Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? takes its title from a 2000 movie starring Ashton Kutcher and Stifler and has at the center a global flashmob competition tells you all you need to know about the creative bona fides of this film. Debbie Isitt once again takes the helm in the third installment of this Christmas series, though it’s a bit disingenuous to say that anyone is really in charge here. As she did with her previous two movies, Isitt gives her actors free reign on dialogue and just about everything else, resulting in what can be safely called a bad night of improvisational comedy recorded for all posterity.

Marc Wootton has been the one constant. He appears in all the films and manages with reckless, squealy abandon to sabotage each one. I’m not inclined to root against cute children, but when his pint-sized charges so willingly attach themselves to his poo-loving, anarchist teacher’s aide character, Mr Poppy, I kind of want the disciplined toffs to win, and that includes Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) and his overachieving band of stage kids.

This time, all are vying for a coveted national flashmob title and a chance to perform atop the Empire State Building. Discerning audiences will see this as a platform for splashy shoots at (mostly) London landmarks, especially since outdated dance crazes aren’t the film’s main focus. St Bernadette’s, the Coventry primary school in the middle of all this, is also due for an Ofstead inspection. This has everyone on edge, including Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie), the temporary headmistress. Not one to let things slide, she banishes Mr Poppy and his donkey in order to literally clear the shit from the halls.

And just when you thought two incongruous plot lines were enough, enter Jeremy Shepherd (Martin Clunes), whose daughter Lauren (Lauren Hobbs) is a new student at St Bernadette’s. He’s engaged to Sophie (Catherine Tate), whose former boyfriend is world famous flash mobber Bradley Finch (a deliciously skeezy Adam Garcia). A run-in with Mr Poppy’s donkey, however, leaves Jeremy with a poorly timed case of memory loss – and it’s almost Christmas Day!

It’s not a pleasant experience watching these various stories crash into each other. It’s as if absent a story, Isitt believes a bunch of holiday distractions will do the trick. There’s an ATV elf chase, a man dressed as a snow pig, and an overreliance on the Andrews Sisters. A last minute turn towards the sentimental also plays out more like a gimmick. Maybe most disappointing is the lack of inspiring soundtrack. Even the subpar sequel delivered some playlist-friendly tunes. Let’s hope this is where the buck/donkey stops on this franchise.

Released: 2014
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Clunes, Marc Wootton, Lauren Hobbs, Catherine Tate, Celia Imrie, Adam Garcia, Jason Watkins
Time: 110 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger

nativity 2 danger in the manger

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:

Released: 2012
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
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Nativity!

nativity

My critical defenses are lowered at Christmastime. Average movies that earnestly convey the Christmas spirit and enkindle greater love for others tend to get a pass. Bonus points are awarded for really cute kids, and singing. By this measure, Nativity! qualifies as a damn good holiday movie. At risk of sounding like an internet troll, if you don’t feel a little better about humanity after watching this group of underdog kids pull off the best nativity play ever, you have no heart.

The story revolves around Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) and the primary students of St. Bernadette’s in Coventry, who attempt to stage a successful Christmas play after years of mediocre efforts. The retiring head teacher, Mrs. Bevans (Pam Ferris), tasks Mr. Maddens with organizing the production, but that is the last thing the burned out teacher needs. Besides, Christmas is just a seasonal reminder that his girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) has left him.

Mr. Maddens, an undistinguished graduate of Midlands Academy of Performing Arts, nevertheless begins to compose a few songs, but his meticulous planning is thrown into disarray with the arrival of his teaching assistant, Desmond Poppy (Mark Wootton). Wooten’s antics test the audience’s patience; Mr. Poppy has the emotional maturity of a middle schooler, which younger kids find boisterous but which thinking, responsible adults probably find offensive. When he is not encouraging general pandemonium, he is planning a field trip to a maternity ward so that the students can better act out the birth of Jesus. “I’ve got a big oaf helping my children to fail,” says Mr. Maddens, after suffering a complete breakdown in classroom control.

Mr. Poppy needlessly complicates things when he overhears and spreads a rumor that Jennifer, a producer, will be filming St. Bernadette’s nativity play. The misunderstanding escalates far too quickly to be believable but does provide the narrative tension to move the film towards its showy climax. Before long, the entire town thinks that Hollywood will be descending on the school. Mr. Maddens’s old friend and current nemesis, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), doubles down and plots a grander production for his elite private school students. “We need something edgier, more dangerous, something darker. Something like the RSC do every year….Something European, strange, exotic. Something the Americans don’t understand but love.” They decide to stage “Herod, the Opera.”

This strain of dry humor, which Freeman is especially adept at, runs throughout the movie, but the comicality of the script is complemented by Mr. Maddens’s more serious conversations with his students. Not only does he encourage a group of ordinary kids to be a little more than that but he also wants them to just be kinder people. His heartfelt attempts to teach them something actually worthwhile do not come off as syrupy or manipulative but as simply honest, so says the teacher in me.

Those Christmas-appropriate lessons of love and generosity come together in an uplifting finale. It is a nativity play to beat all nativity plays, not because of its polish but because the spirit and story of Christmas shine through so clearly. The soundtrack is truly unbeatable, one that will last for many holidays to come.

There are 6 original songs in the nativity that are sung by the children. Here are 3 that will make your heart melt.

“Nazareth”

“She’s the Brightest Star”

“One Night, One Moment”

Released: 2009
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mark Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen, Alan Carr, Pam Ferris, Ricky Tomlinson, Clarke Peters
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014