"These films have a peculiar and at times indefinable whiff of the ersatz", I once said about films made for conservative, fundamentalist Christian audiences on mainstream models, and while I was right, I got lucky. You don't know from ersatz until you've seen The Star, which is on the one hand a studio-funded "faith audience" movie for families, telling the story of Jesus's birth, and is on the other hand a very terrible copycat of early-2000s DreamWorks movies. Or, let me put it this way: we finally have a way to teach your children, through the power of sassy talking animals, about the nativity of our Lord and Savior, while also keeping them entertained with birdshit jokes. I mean, I'm nobody's idea of a devout anything but when the quick-witted trickster dove Dave (Keegan-Michael Key) talks about pooping on people's head to relieve his anger at the world, I found myself giving the movie some pretty severe side eye.

Poop jokes, though, are among the least of the weirdly tone-deaf extravagances peppering The Star. When I say "copycat of DreamWorks", I'm mostly thinking of the celebrity voice cast - which is incomprehensibly well-heeled - and the reliance on bad, anachronistic music cues, mostly in the form of R&B-ish versions of Christmas carols (far better when John Paesano's "original" score is just reprocessing those carols into Giacchino-style film music). But it is also, and even more inexplicably, a copycat of the Pixar narrative formula, in which the first two-thirds of the movie indulge in light comedy and doe-eyed sentiment, before the last third transitions into an action-adventure. This is, I hasten to remind you, a story of the Nativity, that transitions into an action-adventure. Presumably you, like myself, wonder how in the hell this is even remotely possible. Well, we'll get there, but right now let me just state in mind-boggled amazement that this film's climax involves spoiler for the only part of this film that might actually come as a surprise to anybody the villain, a vicious tracker in the employ of King Herod (Christopher Plummer) falling off a cliff to his death. Joy to the world, the Lord has come.

So anyway, on top of all of this, it's a boilerplate kids' film about a Special Snowflake who just knows he's destined for better things, on account of how he's too much whatever for the rules, like all those other rule-followers. In this case, our hero is a donkey (Steven Yeun) wasting his life chained to a millstone in Nazareth, terrified that he's going to grow old and die there, just like the old donkey (Kris Kristofferson) whose sagging hindquarters are our hero's only view, besides a small knothole that gives him a precious view of the main drag in town. It comes to pass that the Royal Caravan comes to Nazareth (best not to dwell too long on what that even is, but it appears to be Roman), and the donkey and his best friend - the aforementioned Dave the dove - both want to join it and see the world. This means that the donkey must first escape from the mill, and this entails hiding in the garden of a young newlywed couple. Wouldn't you just guess, the couple in question is Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi), currently dealing with their own small crisis: Mary, you see, has lately been informed by a glowing pillar of blue light that she is to carry to term the embodied Son of God.

And so the donkey, whom Mary names Bo (short for Boaz), ends up bristling that he has to be stuck with these damn humans, when he should be off gallivanting around with the Royal Caravan. Meanwhile, there is a completely other plot: a new star has appeared over Bethlehem, in Judea, and three eastern kings (voice actors Fred Tatasciore and Phil Morris, and multimillionaire prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen, as the wacky one) are riding their three camels (Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, and Oprah Winfrey) to the court of Herod, where they accidentally tell him about the impending Messiah. Crafty despot that he is, Herod sends that previously-mentioned soldier/tracker, and his two dogs, vicious Thaddeus (Ving Rhames) and idiot Rufus (Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias), to find and kill Mary and her baby. And maybe every other newborn male in Judea, the film is oddly vague on that point.

This is so weird. Not good, not bad (okay, so it is, in fact, bad), just very much weird. Or, if I may, it's very much ersatz. It looks for all the world like a generically crummy kids' movie, joylessly grinding through the plot beats and reed-thin jokes of a thousand Sings or Angry Birds Movies with substantially worse character design and animation than either of those (and neither of them necessarily had enough room for "substantially" worse character design). There's something unyielding and unpleasantly smooth about the characters, like they were all misted in lacquer; this is, surprisingly, one of those rare (maybe even the only one) films where the human characters uniformly look more convincing and appealing than the cute talking animals, who have a generally tendency to seem embalmed, particularly Bo and the camels.

So anyway, generically crummy, the kind of thing that makes people without children grimace in sympathy when their friends with children talk about having to go see the damn thing. Let's be clear about that: The Star is already in the running for the worst big-ticket studio cartoon of 2017, and it hasn't been a good year for the form (its only competition is Sony Pictures Animation stablemate The Emoji Movie, which looks better but is considerably more stupid). But then, in the middle of this suspiciously rickety framework of the most barely-good-enough animation that money can buy, Gina Rodriguez will just up and launch into a monologue about the need to always bend to the will of God, in exactly the tones of chipper can-do friendliness of all the "believe in yourself" bromides of a Cars 3. Or Oprah will retell the history of Christianity for a solid paragraph, and poor Tracey Morgan is then required to sell the line pretending that it was a joke, and not a harangue.

Frankly, the fact that this keeps glitching its way into religious propaganda makes me find The Star more edifying, not less. On its merits as a story, a comedy, and an adventure, this is devoid of any interest; as a shabby attempt by a secular company to pander to evangelical audiences using inept moralistic asides, it at least has the merit of being strange and foreign. I can't think of who this movie could possibly appeal to: the religious audiences have to deal with the pop culture and bird crap, the bird crap jokes audiences have to deal with all the hapless preaching. This is gaudy and wrong-headed, dull as dull could be and ugly, but it's also 2017's most enchanting example of a "what are you fucking doing?" animated movie since the sublimely misguided Rock Dog.