Forest Whitaker plays a legendary toymaker in Netflix’s elaborately produced holiday musical.
Christmas is coming. And if anyone is not convinced it’s the most wonderful time of the year, here’s an excessively Christmassy Victorian-set musical on Netflix to batter you into good cheer. In many ways, Jingle Jangle feels like a fairly boilerplate family movie (think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Willy Wonka) but with one big difference: the characters are mostly black. There’s a brilliant scene where a group of children have a snowball fight on a Dickensian cobbled street. Their ringleader is brainiac child genius Journey (Madalen Mills), a 10-year-old girl. As the kids pelt each other with snowballs, a song by Ghanaian singer Bisa Kdei plays, and Journey and her friends break into African dance moves. Their ethnicity is not the point of their characters or of the scene, but their culture and heritage are seen and celebrated.
In the opening minutes of David E. Talbert’s new holiday film, two young children ask their grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) to tell them a holiday tale. One of them specifically requests “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” prompting her to look at them with a twinkle in her eye before announcing, “I think it’s time for a new story.”
It’s a not-so-subtle indicator that Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Netflix’s latest bid to create a Yuletide perennial, is going to deliver a more inclusive experience. Featuring a cast almost entirely composed of people of color, the film is a proudly over-the-top, entertaining musical comedy extravaganza that should prove very popular this holiday season, especially considering a potentially bleak winter when people will probably need a feel-good experience more than ever.
Writer/director Talbert (Baggage Claim, Almost Christmas) originally conceived the project as a stage musical, and it’s easy to see its theatrical roots in the lavish production numbers, including an elaborately choreographed (by Ashley Wallen) snowball fight. The terrific musical score features songs by the likes of John Legend and Philip Lawrence, the latter best known for his Grammy-winning collaborations with such performers as Bruno Mars.
Forest Whitaker, displaying surprisingly good singing chops, plays the lead role of the delightfully named Jeronicus Jangle, a Victorian-era toymaker in the imaginary town of Cobbleton. The convoluted plot, which won’t be of great concern to younger viewers, revolves around Jeronicus falling on hard times after the death of his wife and the betrayal of his apprentice (Keegan-Michael Key, delivering an exuberantly outsized performance and clearly having a great time). Years later, with the help of his young granddaughter Journey (appealing newcomer Madelen Mills), Jeronicus manages to recapture the spirit that first inspired him.
The film boasts a distinct steampunk visual aesthetic (Talbert says that his chief inspirations were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Doolittle) that is clearly evident in the eye-popping sets and especially Jeronicus’ mechanical creations, including an adorable robot and a seemingly alive miniature figure, the villainous Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin). The colorful production and costume designs will best be appreciated on the largest screen possible, as will the musical numbers that thankfully eschew overly frenetic cutting in favor of a more classical visual approach. The energetic musical score, heavily infused with R&B but also incorporating a wide variety of musical styles including traditional Broadway-style balladry, is consistently tuneful. A particular highlight is the brassy “Magic Man G,” in which Key gets to strut his stuff like a veteran song-and-dance man.
If there’s a problem with Jingle Jangle, it’s that the film, much like Jeronicus’ toy emporium, feels more than a little overstuffed — with numerous subplots, such as Jeronicus’ reunion with his estranged grown daughter (Anika Noni Rose), and his encounters with a banker (Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville in an enjoyable cameo) demanding repayment of a decades-old loan — and the gratuitous insertion of theme park-inspired adventure sequences that seem more appropriate for an Indiana Jones movie. As with so many films geared to children, there’s a freneticism on display that sometimes feels more exhausting than exhilarating.
Nonetheless, the film, featuring generous doses of enchanting stop-motion and CGI animation, has its heart in the right place, and certainly succeeds in its goal of infusing a traditional holiday tale with the sort of diversity that will help it appeal to a broader audience.
Playwright and film-maker David E Talbert serves up a cinematic buffet that’s heavy on the sweet stuff, as Journey attempts to salvage her grandad’s reputation. It’s a film that may be a bit sugary for some tastes, but it’s made with real care and craft: from exquisite stop-motion inserts to the blast of energy dance routines by Kylie choreographer Ashley Wallen and stunning hair design from Sharon Martin – creating Victoriana styles inspired by natural afro hair.
I did wonder, though, if it was necessary to make Journey quite such a paragon of kindness. She reminded me of those books about great women written to inspire little girls – Marie Stopes or Coco Chanel smiling pleasantly on every page. Nice-girl Journey could perhaps have done with a few more character traits. But that’s a small beef with a film beaming with positivity – and yuletide good cheer.