Release: 23rd November

Director: Debbie Isitt

Starring: Simon Lipkin, Craig Revel Horwood, Daniel Boys, Celia Imrie, Ruth Jones, Meera Syal

About the midway point through Debbie Isitt’s Nativity Rocks! - the fourth instalment in a franchise that has blossomed in festive popularity since the 2009 original - there are so many random side-stories, bonkers sub-plots and incidental supporting characters colourfully popping up on screen that the upbeat lark threatens to feel like it is trying to offer up something different for every day of advent. 

An adorable Syrian refugee (Brian Bartle) desperate to find his father (an ever-dependable Ramin Karimloo). The long-lost brother of former series’ regular Mr Poppy (played in parts 1 -3 by Marc Wootton) also trying to find family. A neglected young private schooler alone in his eleven-bedroom home, well-to-do parents in absentia. A flamboyant, egotistical director trying to gobble up all the parts from the children of the titular rock opera. The City of Coventry trying to grab a coveted ‘Christmas Town’ title, which envelops franchise mainstay St. Bernadette’s Primary School in its effort. 

Parades. Pooping strays. Potential romance. Social workers. Starship.

Throw in Ruth Jones hiking up a mountainside with a stick and Celia Imrie navigating the trials and tribulations of an amateur stage career, and you start to paint a picture of just how scattershot barmy Rocks! really is. It’s as though Isitt and team threw ideas for half a dozen Nativity! sequels into a blender and opted for a patch-work of them all.

And yet, what’s perhaps most inexplicable of all, is that, somehow, the bustle and madness of it all actually works.

Chalk it down to “the magic of Christmas” (as the movie unironically quips at one point), the innate feel-good promise of the franchise concept (who doesn’t love kids singing at Christmastime?) or maybe the breath of fresh air from an all-new cast that shrewdly brings in a number of key players from the wonderful stage show adaptation of the first film.

Much like its shiny glitter bomb of a script, it’s difficult to pin down much of anything in the Nativity Rocks! formula. And, much like Christmas itself, it’s essentially a case of too many people busying about doing too many things, but ultimately for the right reason, and with their hearts in the right place.

Sure, it could’ve done with trimming down some of the egregious bit parts and distractions (Meera Syal’s handful of scenes scream pure ‘oh it’s her!’ fare), whilst some of the attempts to box tick the series’ staples (duking it out with rival school Oakmoor? check!) feel half-baked and perfunctory when wedged in amongst all the other mayhem.

And yet, Rocks! is the best and freshest the franchise has felt since the original. If you can handle the blocky, almost episodic nature of its structuring (a particular highlight being an extended set piece with Hugh Dennis and Anna Chancellor), there’s a heck of a lot to enjoy crammed into the film’s 100 minute run time (the series’ shortest entry yet).

Front and centre are the new cast. Another adorable line-up of local, Midlands-based talent form the core of the film’s cadre of school kids, and whilst the youngsters are slightly sidelined as an ensemble this time round (St Bernadette's seems almost forgotten about for a significant portion of the run-time), there are three other movies to scratch that particular itch. Refugee Doru (Bartle) and lonely Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull) are given the most to work with of the youngsters, and the two young actors give lovely, naturalistic turns, something Isitt has demonstrated herself as having a particular knack for drawing out.

It wouldn’t be a Nativity! release without some recognisable faces from the British TV and comedy circuits, though, and Rocks! is no exception. Craig Revel Horwood is a lot of fun essentially playing an aggrandised version of his Strictly Come Dancing ‘Mr Nasty’ persona (by way of Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen’s wardrobe) and he is ably abetted by Jamie Chapman (another inductee from the stage show) as his equally flamboyant aide. 

What Rocks! really showcases, though, is the rising star of Simon Lipkin. Fresh off of rave reviews and an electric performance as Mr Poppy in the stage show (which he continues to star in), here he steps into the role of that character’s brother here in the Nativity cinematic universe (confused, yet?). 

Yes, the long-lost brother card is a bit of an easy out for explaining why Lipkin’s original stage performance hovers around some of Marc Wootton’s original Mr Poppy ‘ism’s’ (a shame the same couldn’t be offered to the similarly excellent Daniel Boys, who also performs some stage-to-screen transplant work here), but Lipkin is an injection of energy, joy and exuberance throughout. Sure, ‘Jerry’ is painted in the same broad strokes as Wootton’s original ‘Desmond’, and, much like his brother, some may find his dialled-up-to-eleven turn grating than entertaining (grouches), but there’s no denying Lipkin throws himself into the role completely, and, for the audience and tone being pitched, carries the film brilliantly on his animated, irrepressible shoulders. 

It doesn’t hurt that he’s able to showcase his killer vocals throughout, too - sometimes even to hilarious effect. Surely it will be the start of great things to come for the talented multi-threat.

Buoyed by once again being filmed locally in the Midlands, and indeed wearing its Coventry pride front and centre (with one of the key numbers even being titled ‘Our Town’), with the same earnest, rough-around-the-edges charm and authenticity that made the original in particular such a treat, Nativity Rocks! is a very easy recommendation of a Christmas treat for kids of all ages. 

The youngsters (and no doubt some of the adults) will lap up Lipkin’s new ‘Poppy’ and the broader hijinks and silliness, whilst even the staunchest and most poe-faced of adults will be hard pressed to not find themselves smiling and giggling along. By the time Revel Horwood is threatening a little doggy out of nothing more than spite, tongue so firmly planted in his cheek and seemingly a nanosecond away from a wink and nudge to the camera, you’d have to have a heart of steel to not just be going along with the innate, hilarious daftness of it all.

Nativity Rocks! is unabashed Christmas joy. Yes, it’s silly, it’s clumsy, and it’s about as subtle and restrained as an explosion in a snow flocking factory, and as cheesy as an after-dinner cheddar board (and even more clunkily put together). But it’s also peppered with genuine laugh out loud moments, bursting with heart, and littered with Isitt’s signature beats of authentic vignettes from the kids. And again, much like Christmas as a whole, it’s ultimately all a lot of well-meaning, spirited warmth and nonsense.

And, let’s face it, going in to the fourth film in the franchise, you’ve no excuse for not knowing what to expect.

As superhero and Star Wars fatigue sets in and somewhat clears the auditoriums for Christmas 2018, there’s a lot to be said for supporting local filmmaking and talent, and how better to do so than by treating yourself to a couple of hours of harmless festive fun; a real cracker that the whole family will likely find themselves laughing, smiling, singing and, yes, rocking along to over the holidays.

Rating: U

Running Time: 100 Minutes