Dir. David E. Talbert; Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan- Michael Key
[3 out of 4 stars]
There is a certain warm feeling I get when I watch a good Christmas movie. It is as if the essence of all the snowy walks, cookie decorating, and shopping are distilled into the spirit of the filmmaking. More often than not, I settle for the empty calories variety of the feeling, attainable by mainlining the pleasant but forgettable fare that Hallmark churns out each year. When I want to get the full hit of Christmas cheer, I return to the classics that I have always loved, like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Home Alone (1990), but it has been a while since I have gotten that cheery rush from a new release. Therefore I am overjoyed to report that amongst a number of utterly mediocre and downright bad Christmas movies that Netflix has released this year, there is a true charmer in the midst: David E. Talbert’s holiday musical extravaganza Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020).
Jingle Jangle follows the multi-generational story of inventor extraordinaire Jeronicus Jangle (young: Justin Cornwell, older: Forest Whitaker) when he loses the creative spark after his apprentice Gustafson (young: Miles Barrow, older: Keegan-Michael Key) betrays him by stealing an invention that he Gustafson passes of as his own. Jeronicus enters a downward spiral that sees him lose his money, his happiness, and his connection with his daughter Jessica (young: Diaana Babnicova, older: Anika Noni Rose) after his wife dies. Decades after the betrayal, Gustafson is the most successful toymaker in the world while Jeronicus is given a hard deadline by the bank: come up with one more “sensational” invention by Christmas, or the shop that also doubles as his home will no longer belong to him. Everything seems grim for Jeronicus until his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), a brilliant mind and aspiring inventor herself, arrives on his doorstep to visit him for the holiday season. Jeronicus is grumpy and uninterested in Journey at first, but over time the two of them come together in a way that suggests maybe, just maybe, they both might be exactly what the other one needs.
No, this is not the most original thematic set-up for a Christmas movie, a genre overflowing with time-worn clichés, which Jingle Jangle replicates throughout its runtime: the brilliant and grumpy older man who needs the love and spirit of a child to remember that life is worth living, the evil but bumbling antagonist who wants to do bad things, but really at heart is just misunderstood, a family that has fallen apart but must be brought back together for any of them to be truly happy. Yet, the film employs these clichés within a framework that has been sorely lacking in the genre: celebration of Black love and ingenuity. Jingle Jangle was written and directed by a Black man, stars an almost entirely Black cast, and does so with the confidence of a film that seems to say ‘this is our story and it needs to be told.’ So often in the movies we watch every year at Christmas, Black characters are relegated to supporting roles, or left out of the narrative entirely, as if only white people celebrate the holiday season. Jingle Jangle is a welcome corrective to this damaging approach that Hollywood has taken for decades, and from the existing clichés and expected thematic structures, a film of impeccable production quality and care emerges to light up the screen.
Everything we see on screen somehow captures the boundless joy you get as a child in a toy shop around the holidays. That time when you could walk around in awe surrounded by whirring wonders in endless colors. Talbert and his designers move past the tired idea of just coating a set in red and green to make it ‘Christmasy,’ which works tremendously to the film’s credit. Michael Wilkinson’s costume design, in particular, is central to the film’s visual success. Key’s sickly green and gold outfit, complete with cane and top hat, echoes both Ebeneezer Scrooge’s iconic mug, and, with the simple addition of tassels on the shoulders, the ethos of a Christmas general gearing up for a fight. Comparatively, the purples, reds, and various earth tones that Mills wears are inviting and warm. She wears practical sweaters, coats, and boots that mark her as the grounded and focused heroine that she is. Yet that attention to detail does not stop at the costumes, for each room, building, and street our characters move through evokes the same bright holiday spirit. Our first glimpse of Jeronicus’ shop bursts with golds, browns, blues, and a checkerboard floor that just screams ‘this place is fun!’ When Jeronicus retreats after his betrayal, the shop becomes dark and dusty, and it is only with Journey’s love that the colors and lights come back. Each scene provides a new opportunity to marvel at the detailed and loving costumes, sets, and production design. Even when the plot hits some of those clichés we would much rather avoid, it looks so damn good doing it that I found I could not hold anything against it too long.
Jingle Jangle also features nine original songs, written by the likes of John Legend and Philip Lawrence (a frequent Bruno Mars collaborator). Musically, they meld traditional stage musical cadences with genres like R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and gospel, further underscoring that this is a story about the genius of Black creators. The visuals are married perfectly with the sounds to turn each performance into a sensory feast. I had no idea Key was a musician, but to see him prance around his decadent toy showroom belting “Oh I’m known all around the world / Legendary toys for boys and girls” over a rich assemblage of strings and brass on “Magic Man G” was everything you want for a villain’s introduction. Mills sings a number of songs in the film, but “Square Root of Possible” is the one that will no doubt help to make her a rising star. It is a solo piece where she rushes around Jeronicus’ shop with joy and verve. The lyrics, with a chorus featuring the lines “’Cause the squarе root of impossible / Is possible /In me,” risk dipping into overly cloying, but through sheer force of will, Mills sells every one. She is, of course, helped along by a lush orchestration that should help add this song to the Christmas pantheon. Yet, the one I find myself humming to myself over and over is the Legend-penned “Make it Work,” a rousing and driving gospel-drenched powerhouse that marks the moment Jessica returns to see her father. Noni Rose and Whitaker make a meal of the song, and the choreography of the dancers who float in and out make it one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Jingle Jangle is precisely the kind of movie that I yearn for when the weather gets colder, and I’m itching to dive into the Christmas spirit. I do not come to the movies in the holiday genre looking for philosophical revelations or biting critiques of the world order. There are plenty of other movies for that. What I do look for is heart, great craftsmanship, and the intention of saying something more than ‘Hey guys, Christmas is great!’ Jingle Jangle does all of that with aplomb, and I have already found myself revisiting it just a few days after watching it the first time. Talbert and company have captured a wonderful feeling in their film, and done so while adding to a genre that has been unfortunately stagnant for any number of years. So please, make some cocoa, dim the lights, and check out Jingle Jangle for all your holiday movie-watching needs.