New Line's Christmas release is not the greatest story ever told of The Greatest Story Ever Told. A promising take on Jesus' birth, treating the Biblical event as a historical drama with lots of period detail of Jewish-peasant village life, The Nativity Story suffers from a perhaps impossible hurdle for a feature-length movie: How do you fill the long, mostly desert journey of Mary and Joseph with visual, emotional or psychological drama when the outcome is known and you don't want to go all Jerry Bruckheimer with made-up action pieces? Maybe James Cameron could have done a titanic job on it, but production designer-turned-director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich have created instead a gorgeous diorama that in fact looks like exactly what you'd get if a production designer became a director.

As traditionally told--from the 1898 French short "La Crèche à Bethléem" to the 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and countless points before and beyond--the tale of the Nativity is a mix of the only two Jesus-infancy stories in the New Testament, that of Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The big stops on this baggage-laden train of events are the late-in-life pregnancy of Elizabeth, who would bear John the Baptist; the Annunciation, in which the archangel St. Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become pregnant with the baby Jesus; the Incarnation of the human Jesus within Mary, by the Holy Spirit; the Visitation of the pregnant Mary from her home in Nazareth to her cousin Elizabeth in Hebron; the journey by Mary and her husband Joseph to his ancestral home of Bethlehem; the three magi following the Star of Bethlehem to His birth in a humble manger; and Gabriel announcing His birth to the shepherds.

All this comes to pass in the movie, and to the filmmakers' credit it's by no means an episodic procession but a genuine story with people going about their day-to-day lives and expressing concern over such things as maybe selling the village teacher an extra cheese that day to help make money to pay taxes, or parental worry that Mary make the trip from Nazareth to Hebron with trusted neighbors. Keisha Castle-Hughes (an Oscar nominee for Whale Rider) is understated and vulnerably human as Mary, portraying conflicted emotions with subtle shades of expression, and Shohreh Aghdashloo provides Elizabeth with a spectrum of earthy fear, joy and love of family that makes a time 2,000 years ago feel utterly of-the-present.

Aside from them, however, a perfectly good cast is undone by a mish-mash of thick accents that are at moments impenetrable. King Herod is played as cardboard evil, and if Forest Whitaker can portray a butcher like Idi Amin three-dimensionally, you'd think the usually marvelous Ciarán Hinds could do Herod without virtually twirling his mustache like Snidely Whiplash. And turning the three magi into comic relief just a few steps away from being Larry, Moe and Melchior is a well-intentioned misfire. It's hard not to think of Ellen DeGeneres' famous bit "My point-and I do have one...." when Balthazar twice tells his fellows, "If I am right-and I usually am...." For a movie where the co-executive producers are named Funk and Disco, The Nativity Story doesn't have much Soul.