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'The Star' Brings Christianity To Hollywood In Animated, Nativity-Themed Film

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The countdown to Christmas starts in earnest. Lights are going up. Pine trees are getting picked. Holiday carols are on heavy rotation everywhere. But for people who may be having trouble getting into the holiday spirit, this could also be a time to look for that Christmas movie. And if that is you, the film "The Star" might be your choice this weekend. It's an animated kid-friendly take on the Nativity story. That is the story of the birth of Jesus. And it's the latest project from TV and film producer, author and minister DeVon Franklin, who's made a successful career producing or supporting faith-themed films. He's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. DeVon Franklin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEVON FRANKLIN: Hey, Michel. Thanks for having me. So glad to be here.

MARTIN: And I also want to mention we recorded this interview in advance. And I thought I'd mention that for those who might wonder why you're here with us and not fulfilling religious commitments because, as I said, you are a minister. And so I want to talk about that for a minute. I mean, your faith commitment and your work in entertainment have always been linked. I mean, people might remember, you know, "Heaven Is For Real" that you produced back in 2014. You know, it was made for a small amount of money. It far exceeded expectations in what it earned. And so - and I also understand that you've been preaching since you were 15. So why films? Is Hollywood your church?

FRANKLIN: Oh, yeah. Hollywood is absolutely my church without a doubt. But it's almost like Hollywood is the pulpit, right? Because that's from where the message comes from. And then the audience would in essence be the church. And for me, you know, I started - you know, I've been a Christian pretty much all my life. I got baptized in my early teens. I'm from Northern California. And as a kid, you know, I always was just fascinated by entertainment. My father passed away when I was 9 years old. He died of a heart attack when he was 36. And so he left my mother to raise my older brother, me and my younger brother. And it was very difficult.

So she didn't have money for therapy. So for me, church and watching entertainment was my therapy. And so I was always fascinated with how you could make content that could inspire and uplift because I was watching films like "Rocky" and "Back To The Future" and "The Color Purple." And these films were so inspirational to me - and shows like "A Different World." And I just wanted to be a part of the industry because if it could help heal me, I thought the industry could be a place that could help heal others.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the things I was curious about because I think that a lot of people think of Hollywood as being kind of atheists, secular, hedonistic, if you will, on the one hand. And on the other hand, people who are familiar with sort of faith-themed films might see them as belonging to a very specific niche, like a very specific - well, espousing a very specific form of Christianity, very conservative, evangelical perspective. And you've bridged both. And I think, you know, I think a lot of people might be curious to know that, A, that you exist and, B, how did you pull that off?

FRANKLIN: Here's the truth. So many times in the headlines we see one version of Hollywood, but the Hollywood that I've experienced is different than the Hollywood portrayed in the media. You know, there are thousands upon thousands of people behind the scenes that are hard-working people, people of integrity, people of character, people who want to do good in the world. And that is so much of the Hollywood that I've been exposed to. And you would be shocked that Hollywood is a place of tremendous faith. And what I mean by that is that every time you go to the movie theater, every movie that's released, the studio has no idea if the film is going to work. That's called faith.

So when someone like myself comes into the industry, and I own who I am - like, I don't have any issue with being Christian and being OK with saying that. There is something that happens in Hollywood where Hollywood, you know, when you own your difference, Hollywood just kind of says, OK, well, if you're confident and you're comfortable, then cool, we'll embrace you. You would be surprised at the embrace that Hollywood has done for me and other people like me. Now, is it easy? No. Has it been difficult? Without a doubt.

MARTIN: So why did you want to make this particular film and why now?

FRANKLIN: You know, I wanted to make "The Star" because I've always felt like, you know, when you look at animation, animation is one of the biggest genres in the family film space. But when you look at animated films, you know, with themes of faith, there have been very few. I mean, the last one to be done by a major studio was "The Prince Of Egypt" 20 years ago. So it felt like there was just a great opportunity to go into this space and do it with CGI animation. And what better story to start with than the story of the Nativity, the birth of Christ, but seeing it from a new point of view, which is the point of view of the animals?

MARTIN: The animals, yes. And there's an all-star cast here for the voiceover artists - Gina Rodriguez, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Clarkson and, of course, the camels played by - well, let's play a clip. And I'm sure that folks hearing it will recognize these voices. Here it is.

FRANKLIN: Right on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STAR")

TRACY MORGAN: (As Felix) These wise guys are lost.

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Deborah) Wise men don't get lost, Felix.

MORGAN: (As Felix) So you're saying they know where this birthday party is?

TYLER PERRY: (As Cyrus) And what makes you so certain it's a birthday party?

WINFREY: (As Deborah) Oh, here we go.

MORGAN: (As Felix) Have you seen the presents these guys are bringing? Gold, myrrh, frankincense.

PERRY: (As Cyrus) Could be a baby shower. You bring gifts to a baby shower.

MORGAN: (As Felix) Baby shower? What is a baby going to do with frankincense, silly camel?

MARTIN: That was Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry and Oprah as the camels who are transporting the three wise men. So tell me about this story, why the animals? What was the idea of locating the story in their perspective?

FRANKLIN: Well, you know, when you look at the Nativity scene, it's classic because not only do you have Mary Joseph and baby Jesus, you had the animals. And there hasn't been a mainstream story told that really said, well, what would it be like if we could see how the animals saw the event? So that felt like a fresh way to tell this story and also introduce this story to a new generation. And what I love is that so many of the cast members, the reason why they wanted to be a part of it because they were attracted to wanting to tell this story, which everyone knows, but doing it in a point of view that no one has seen before.

MARTIN: What do you hope will be accomplished by this film, I mean, however you define, you know, success?

FRANKLIN: I define success as peace. And I believe it's not about position. It's not about money. It's not about any of those things. It's about peace. And so my hope is that this film, "The Star," would bring peace to families, would bring peace to the box office because this is a story that all families can come to and enjoy because the main character in the story is Bo the donkey. And he's a donkey who has great dreams, but he doesn't - he's not sure if those dreams can actually happen. But through sacrifice, through friendship, through community, he ultimately achieves his greatest dream, and the result of that is peace.

And in a time where there's so much going on, there's so many challenges, there's so much, quote, unquote, "darkness" in the world, I do believe that entertainment can be a positive medium. And I do believe "The Star" can bring peace to families and can bring hope to everyone that sees it to know that there is joy the world, that through community, through faith, through love, we can make it through anything.

MARTIN: That is movie Producer DeVon Franklin. His film "The Star" is out now. DeVon Franklin, thank you so much for speaking with us. And an early Merry Christmas to you.

FRANKLIN: (Laughter) Thanks, Michel, same to you. God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.