David E. Talbert’s holiday offering is a fresh mix of fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi, even if it’s not the evenest.
What makes a Christmas movie? Is it the December setting, a cozy aesthetic, or certain plot beats? Those elements are all important, but what really makes a Christmas movie feel Christmassy is its sense of wonder. The best of them capture the wonder and mystery of the holiday season, making even the most cynical of us feel like children.
It’s this sense of wonder that places Netflix’s new holiday musical Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey firmly into the pantheon of this seasonal genre. Despite its subtitle, Jingle Jangle has little to do with the holiday other than taking place in December. Yet the movie expertly captures the holiday spirit in a way that makes it perfect post-Halloween viewing without giving you much of a Christmas overload.
Framed with a classic bedtime story narration, Jingle Jangle tells the tale of toymaker and inventor Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker, Justin Cornwell in flashbacks), whose toy shop contains the most fantastical gadgets. One Christmas Eve, he creates his greatest invention, a living toy named Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin). When Diego learns that Jeronicus plans to mass-produce models of him, he convinces Jeronicus’ apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, Miles Barrow in flashbacks), to steal his master’s book of inventions.
After Gustafson runs off with the plans, a series of misfortune forces Jeronicus to become a pawnbroker and become estranged from his daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose). All the while, Gustafson uses his former master’s ideas to become the most celebrated toymaker in England. When he learns he has until Christmas to repay his debts, Jeronicus’ granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), visits him. The young girl is a budding inventor herself and determined to help her grandfather return to his former glory. When she discovers one of Jeronicus’ lost inventions, she’s convinced it’s the key to his success—but little does she know that Gustafson also has his eye on the toy.
It’s clear that writer/director David E. Talbert is trying to evoke the nostalgia of previous Christmas movies with his plot points, but he manages to subvert it with the world he’s created. Jingle Jangle takes place in an alternative late Victorian/early Edwardian England that’s diverse and free of bigotry. In a media landscape where the Holiday Media Machine constantly churns out dozens of movies with a discernable lack of diversity, it’s refreshing to see a major streaming service distribute and heavily promote a Black-led Christmas movie. Even more exciting is the fact that it’s a period piece with a POC cast that doesn’t focus on racial prejudice.
Included in this subversion is the music, which shies away from period accuracy and instead injects show tunes with R&B and soul influences. The result is a movie full of toe-tappers and roof-raisers that allow the cast to show off their vocal chops. While all the songs are good, the showstopper is “Make It Work Again,” a duet between Jeronicus and Jessica about their desire to mend their relationship. The song starts out a mournful ballad but soon becomes a powerful dance number driven by the beat of a blacksmith’s hammer. If Jingle Jangle ever gets a Broadway adaptation, it’ll be the scene that brings the house down.
While “Make it Work Again” gives Rose a chance to shine, the rest of the cast is also bursting with energy. Key and Martin are campy villains par excellence, and while they could and should have been a bit more menacing at points, they have great chemistry. Similarly, Jeronica’s love interest, the widowed Mrs. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip), manages to be over-the-top without going overboard. Phillip makes Mrs. Johnston’s desire for Jeronicus so unabashed and forward that you can’t help but smile whenever she comes on screen.
It’s a mix of Victorian adventure, fantasy, and science fiction that makes Jingle Jangle feel familiar but not set in a particular time and place.
Funnily enough, the only actor with low energy is Whitaker. It feels like Jeronicus was meant to be more of a cantankerous character, but somewhere in production, he was softened to a quieter role that doesn’t fit the actor. This has the unfortunate effect of the normally commanding Whitaker getting lost in Jingle Jangle’s vibrancy. Fortunately, he gets to inject more warmth into his performance as Jeronicus and Journey’s relationship develops, and the performance improves greatly.
That said, the relationship between Jeronicus, Journey, and Jessica is lacking. Mills has a lot of charisma and charm for a new actress, and Rose is typically phenomenal. While Talbert gives ample time for Mills and Whitaker to work off each other, Rose is only prominent in the final act, and it’s a shame. It leaves the family dynamic feeling unfocused. There are too many subplots instead, and it’s as if the filmmakers were too afraid to cut anything out.
But honestly, who can blame them? Simply put, the world here is magical. It’s a mix of Victorian adventure, fantasy, and science fiction that makes Jingle Jangle feel familiar but not set in a particular time and place. The result is a more vibrant variant of steampunk (whimsycore?) that makes a techno-magic system where someone can write equations in the air, power a robot with belief, and find the square root of the impossible feel surprisingly… possible. It’s a world where the power of wonder and belief can overcome any obstacle. And that’s what makes Jingle Jangle a Christmas movie.
Jingle Jangle jams out on Netflix this Friday, November 13.