Let’s begin with a brief overview of writer/director/producer David E. Talbert. His first film was apparently something called A Woman Like That, an indie film from 1997 that doesn’t seem to exist outside the film’s IMDb page. His next notable film credits were for First Sunday in 2008 and Baggage Claim (based on Talbert’s own novel) in 2013 — both of which were critical and commercial bombs.
But then, in 2016, Talbert came back with Almost Christmas. That film also tanked, but not quite as badly. Ditto for El Camino Christmas, a Netflix release that also met with middling reviews. Of course we can’t be sure how many people saw that film, because Netflix doesn’t release those numbers, but apparently they liked it well enough to produce Talbert’s third Christmas-themed film in a row.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey opens with a framing device in which an old storyteller (played by Phylicia Rashad) tells a story to her grandkids. There are no bonus points for correctly predicting that this storyteller will in fact be a character in the story proper.
This is the story of Jeronicus Jangle, played at different ages by Justin Cornwell and Forest Whitaker. Jangle is a world-famous inventor, crafting the greatest toys ever seen. And he’s staked his entire future on his latest creation: Artificial intelligence.
Yes, this master of clockwork gadgetry has somehow invented a sentient doll named Don Juan Diego (voiced and mo-capped by… Ricky Martin? Huh. I guess we really are bringing back everything from the ’90s.). Trouble is, Don Juan turns out to be a self-obsessed prick who doesn’t want to be mass-produced — better to stay one-of-a-kind so the whole damn universe can revolve around him.
Enter Gustafson, played at different ages by Miles Barrow and Keegan-Michael Key. He’s a young inventor working as Jangle’s apprentice, though nobody takes him seriously and Jangle himself barely seems to notice him. Don Juan latches onto this, convincing Gustafson to steal Jangle’s inventions and blueprints. With Gustafson’s hunger for attention, Don Juan’s bottomless greed for power, and Jangle’s ideas, Gustafson quickly becomes the most successful toymaker in the world.
Long story short (too late!), Jangle gambled his entire future on an invention that was stolen from him, and he’s somehow unable to prove any theft took place. The business collapses, Jangle’s wife dies of some unspecified illness, and Jangle drives his daughter away. The once-great toymaker has lost all intention or ability to create, and his formerly miraculous toy store is now a pawn shop on the verge of foreclosure.
By now, it’s thirty years since the Don Juan incident. Jangle’s daughter (Jessica, played by Anika Noni Rose) has had a daughter of her own (Journey, played by newcomer Madalen Mills), who turns out to be a mathematical prodigy. Journey sets out to meet her once-legendary grandfather, hoping to return the old man and his shop to their former glory. Whimsy ensues.
First of all, the production design. The filmmakers went all-out in crafting a Victorian-era fantasyland, in the vein of A Muppet Christmas Carol, or perhaps Diagon Alley of the Harry Potter films. The costumes are colorful, the sets are gorgeous, and the CGI is pretty solid all-around (except for some dodgy execution in a particular chase sequence). Yet this cast is comprised almost entirely of BIPOC actors, which makes a significant aesthetic difference.
It’s certainly new. And it doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s really quite intriguing how this casting choice makes the whole fantasy setting of the film distinctly unique and yet comfortably familiar.
Then we have the music. With any musical, my number one question is “Does this have to be a musical?” Is the movie better for being a musical? Do the songs convey information we couldn’t have gotten just as effectively through dialogue or other means?
In this case, the answers are solidly yes, yes, and YES.
That said, while the musical numbers themselves are integral to the character arcs and to the film as a whole, and while the dance choreography is stellar across the board, the songs themselves left me underwhelmed.
Easily the best of the bunch is “Square Root of Possible”, a charming and uplifting number from Journey. (Also, some lyrics in that song echo her grandfather’s big number, “This Day”. Callbacks like that are ingenious, and deceptively hard to do right.) I was also rather impressed with “Magic Man G”, the song that most directly benefits from co-writer John Legend. We’ve also got the Asew Jingle Jangle Remix of “Grandpa Me Nie”, an instrumental number for a snowball fight that’s over far too soon.
I could take or leave the rest of the songs. Then again, history has proven that only one or two stellar tracks on an album or a musical is enough to make a smash hit. (“Let it Go”, anyone?)
The plot is functional, which is more than I can say for a certain other musical kid’s movie on Netflix right now. The stakes are clear, the motivations are solid, it’s easy to track, and the second act doesn’t lag at all. Even when the film breaks into song, it doesn’t feel like the pacing ever lets up. Unfortunately, the film is tragically predictable. This is standard for a kid’s movie, and especially for a film that leans so heavily on holiday movie tropes. But it’s a big problem for a movie with these particular characters.
Take Jangle, for example — specifically, the Jangle played by Forest Whitaker after the 30-year time jump. Of course I understand that this is a man who’s lost everything. His wife is dead, his daughter left him, his apprentice betrayed him, and his life’s work lies in ashes around his feet. It’s a crappy situation to be in, it’s easy to understand how someone in that position could be so miserable (even after 30 years), and of course anyone could sympathize.
The problem is that by nature of the movie, we know Jangle has to eventually brighten up and rediscover the joys of life, family, inventing, and so on. And I spent a solid ninety minutes shouting at the screen, begging the filmmakers to get to that point already! The one bright spot was that delightful snowball fight at the halfway point, then Jangles goes right back to being a grumpy sadsack who wants to make everyone else as miserable as he is. And nobody likes to be around people like that.
In point of fact, the whole movie is loaded with characters I hated to be around. Another prominent example is Edison (Kieron L. Dyer), a young boy who helps Jangle around the shop. There was so much potential for this young wannabe inventor to contribute to the plot, but he turns out to be a cowardly, blustery, dishonest, borderline useless blowhard.
An even worse case in point is Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip, with Marisha Wallace as her singing voice), a widowed postal worker who positions herself as a love interest for Jangle. She’s loud, annoying, intrusive, and aggressively obnoxious. She’s a widow who’s lost loved ones, and that could’ve been used as an effective bridge to Jangles, but that’s wasted potential because it never comes up until she’s practically out of the movie. And I know that she has to work so hard at dragging Jangles out of his shell because he’s so stubborn about staying alone and inert, but countering that with an insufferable character is only compounding the error.
Anika Noni Rose is barely in the movie (though she does make up for lost time in a big way during the third act), Keegan Michael-Key goes for chewing the scenery as the villain, and I don’t even want to discuss Ricky Martin’s character.
I could tolerate Journey, easily the most proactive and charming character in the entire cast. (And again, that “Square Root of Possible” number went a long way.) There’s also Mr. Delacroix, the banker played by Hugh Bonneville for all of two scenes. The character could’ve easily been a mustache-twirling caricature, but the filmmakers instead decided to play him with a bit more sympathy and nuance, and I respect that.
Because otherwise, nuance is absolutely nowhere to be found in this picture. The film only really has one gear, and that’s “over-the-top”. The film had already hit Maximum Whimsy with the first musical number, and it stayed there throughout the entire running time. It got to be very exhausting, very quickly.
In terms of theme, there’s nothing here that’s especially deep. There’s a bit about family, there’s a bit about moving on after grief, but nothing detailed or powerful enough to register as a coherent statement. The strongest and clearest statement this movie has is about the power of belief, and even that’s expressed in shallow, generic, uninspiring terms. Although the nature of the premise means portraying math and engineering in ways that may hopefully get kids interested in STEM, and I’m all for that.
All told, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey resembles nothing so much as a two-pound cake covered in twenty pounds of frosting. The cast is incredibly talented, but so many of the actors are playing characters I hated spending time with. It’s perfectly obvious that the cast and crew spared no effort and everyone came at this with the best of intentions, but none of that translated into anything with a heart or a brain. The end result is a beautiful, charming, hollow piece of work.
I’m genuinely heartbroken that I didn’t like this movie more than I ultimately did, because I love what the film was trying to accomplish and we badly need more of it. Better luck next time, I guess.