Our family was really won over by the 2010 Christmas comedy “Nativity!” (which the rest of the world seemed to overlook), but we wondered what we’d think of it after multiple viewings. Is it a sleeper of a holiday classic? Will it stand the test of time? Well, three years later our reaction has cooled somewhat, but we still agree it’s at least a 7 out of 10 on the Movie Met scale, and yes, it’s still a part of our holiday rotation.
So when a sequel was announced—“Danger in the Manger!”—we were curious to see if it would be another hit, or a miss like the two clunkers in “The Santa Clause” trilogy.
Here we were split, with my 12 year old liking it as much as the original and the rest of the family pronouncing it a 5 or 6 on the Met scale—not nearly as funny as the original, not nearly as surprising, and not nearly as plausible.
Curiously, the packaging doesn’t even trumpet the fact that it’s a follow-up to “Nativity!” except in the last sentence of a teaser-synopsis. Do they want it to stand on its own? Do they want to avoid criticism that star Martin Freeman apparently wanted no part of a sequel and was replaced by David Tennant? Did they think people are so geared to think that sequels are disappointing that they decided to go with the sexier title: “Danger in the Manger!”?
Who knows. But Marc Wooton returns as the effervescent man-child Mr. Poppy, a teaching assistant at the poor Coventry school run by his aunt (Pam Ferris), and Jason Watkins reprises his role as the arrogant choral director from the rich school down the street. A few of the kids also return, but there are plenty of new faces as well to offset what’s not a terribly new plot.
In the original, a jaded veteran teacher (Freeman) was pushed by his new teaching assistant to compete for best-reviewed Christmas pageant against his old nemesis. In “Danger in the Manger!” it’s a national Christmas singing competition that they’re entering, with Tennant as the new teacher who “inherits” Mr. Poppy and the nemesis is changed. Though Shakespeare is still competing, Mr. Peterson’s real competition is his perfect brother (Tennant again)—the one his father praises with the same rigor as he badmouths him, to his face and in front of his wife.
Inexplicably, Mr. Poppy, with no teaching certificate whatsoever, has been in charge of the class since their old teacher left for a happily-ever-after in California, and feeling the need to ratchet up his antics (warning, parents) the screenwriter stoops to gross-out humor on several occasions.
While the kids’ beloved Mr. Maddens went from unhappy, holiday-hating loneliness to someone who loved Christmas again, the new teacher has no such feel-good story. Mr. Peterson has just moved to Coventry with his pregnant wife and is excited to be starting a new life with her and excited about a new teaching job. But he really has no character arc to speak of, while his protests seem less strenuous, making him less of a humorous foil to Mr. Poppy. He gets too quickly pulled along for the ride. And while the children’s auditions were quirky and fun in the first film, here they seem like a limp-throated refrain.
It stretched the logic when in the original film Mr. Maddens took two children with him to Hollywood, but at least he thought that the kids had signed permission slips. It makes far less sense that the entire class would essentially be kidnapped and taken on a duck boat ride to Wales, and that there wouldn’t be an all-out police search with angry parents involved.
Call it “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” meets “Nativity!” because the bulk of the film focuses not on rehearsals and preparation but on the mishap-filled journey to get to the national singing competition. Debbie Isitt wrote and directed “Nativity!” and she does so here too, but seems caught on a track that takes the sequel down too familiar a route, and one that’s not nearly as humorous. Children are exposed to a birth again, but if you juxtapose those scenes from both films the original is by far superior. And you can make a number of those comparisons.
“Danger in the Manger!” is not rated, but would probably merit a PG stamp for “rude/crude elements” and “peril.” It has a runtime of 110 minutes.
The video is a 1.78:1 widescreen “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors to fill out the entire screen. The clarity and definition is good for a DVD, colors are bright, flesh tones natural, and black levels decent.
The featured audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and the sound is distributed well across the effects speakers, with dialogue nicely prioritized. There are no subtitles.
The only bonus feature is the trailer.
There are a lot of bad holiday movies made each year, but I wouldn’t lump this one into that coal hopper. It might actually be funnier if you haven’t seen the first film, but I’m not in a position to say—only that it’s disappointingly similar to the original, and suffers from the comparison.