There’s a lot of negativity surrounding Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger, the sequel to 2009’s Nativity, and perhaps that’s understandable. The class from St Bernadette’s are back, and so is their classroom assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) – an overgrown man-child of a character who infuriates audiences with almost every breath. His irresponsibility knows no bounds.
He steals children away without permission to take them on a school trip, he encourages them to bring their baby brothers and sisters along for the journey, he has them perilously abseiling down the side of 200ft cliffs (really!), and just generally seems to put having fun above the health and safety of the children he’s tasked with looking after.
To say his position of responsibility stretches credibility is an understatement, but this isn’t a social-realist portrayal of a primary school classroom, it’s a magical Christmas jaunt, and Mr Poppy is frankly a wonderful comic creation. Yes, he might be infuriating, but he’s supposed to be and the other adult characters on screen are driven as wild by him as you are. As a result it’s easy to identify with David Tennant’s Mr Peterson (who replaces Martin Freeman’s frustrated teacher from the first instalment) as his irritation with the effervescent Mr Poppy slowly spirals into a fury.
Having said that, if you find yourself sharing in that irritation then you’re probably not part of the film’s target market, you’ve merely accompanied a member of its target market to the cinema. Kids love Mr Poppy. They adore him. What’s more fun to a child under ten than an adult who understands them and allows them to be a little bit naughty? They don’t see an irresponsible buffoon who’s consistently putting children in danger; they see a hilarious and well-meaning friend.
This time around Mr Poppy is intent on entering his class into the Song For Christmas competition, and after holding a series of very funny X Factor style auditions with the children they board a Duck Tours bus and head to the competition in Wales. Things are complicated because they essentially kidnap Mr Peterson who has a pregnant wife (Joanna Page) waiting for him at home, while his estranged twin brother (also played by Tennant) who he desperately wants to avoid is also entering a choir into the contest. It’s a fairly loose plot designed to bring the best out of the film’s improvised style, but it also means that in the middle act there’s a lot of aimless walking around that can become a bit tedious.
The young performers are all fantastic fun though, and never more so than when asked to perform. Director Debbie Isitt seems to be aware of that, and so when the action finally reaches the Song For Christmas competition we see loads more talented child performers. There’s a funny Justin Bieber-esque kid (referred to as Jason Beaver in the movie), a young Irish singer, rapping fairies and dancing Christmas Puddings to name a few of the acts, and they’re all magnificent fun.
The adult actors all throw themselves into it admirably too, but it’s probably Jessica Hynes’ washed up singer/judge who steals the show. Sure, technically there’s a lot wrong with the film, and it will test the patience of many, but Nativity 2 will surely prove a hit with the small folk it was made for – and for that it deserves more credit than it’s being given.