Synopsis: An imaginary world comes to life in a holiday tale of an eccentric toymaker, his adventurous granddaughter, and a magical invention that has the power to change their lives forever.
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin, Kieron Dyer, Justin Cornwell, Lisa Davina Phillip, Hugh Bonneville, Sharon Rose
Director: David E. Talbert
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: Just because we’re getting close to the holiday season, I’m going to give you a little insider information about how screenings sometimes come our way. Critics are often able to take a look at upcoming titles and afforded the opportunity to explore them further to see if they’re something that might appeal to their readers or make for good coverage. As I was browsing the November releases, I passed over Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey without giving it much of a sideways glance and, stupidly on my part, this was mainly because of the title. Having recently made it through all of 45 seconds of Hubie Halloween before waving the white flag, I somehow got it in my mind this was something similar. Then, by chance, I happened to see a small clip in an ad before a random internet video and knew I had to correct my error and fast.
Terms like “instant classic” get tossed around pretty easily but they rarely apply, however I’m going to go out on a snow-covered limb here and bestow said title on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey but insert ‘holiday’ in there for extra clarity. We all have our favorite films to watch as the year winds down and celebrations begin for whatever holiday we observe, and my Christmas movie list is a dense one – impossible to get through in a single year. No matter, it didn’t take long into writer/director David E. Talbert’s extravagant original musical premiering on Netflix to realize that this was a bona fide winner and one that would endure in my household for years to come.
Like the best Christmas stories, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey begins on Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire with a Grandmother (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) telling her two grandchildren a different kind of yuletide tale than they are used to. Cracking open a book that is literally a well-oiled machine, she introduces Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell, Chi-Raq) a brilliant inventor who lives with his wife and young daughter in a small town where his toy shop is the delight of all that enter. His young apprentice, Gustafson, wants to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, as does his inquisitive daughter. With his latest creation, a sleek toy bullfighter named Don Juan Diego that has been given autonomy to move about on its own, Jeronicus is poised to never have another worry for his family once he can mass produce the Don Juan doll.
However, with his independence comes a desire to be a singular creation so Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Gustafson to rob Jeronicus of his sketches and ideas in exchange for success on his own. This sets the appreciate on a path to greatness while the mentor’s life takes a tumble. Flash forward several decades and Jeronicus (now played for Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace) is alone, having been forced out of the toy business and estranged from his adult daughter (Anika Noni Rose, Body Cam). The arrival of his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who also shows a keen knack for invention and mathematics, coincides with the bank threating to foreclose on his home/shop just as Christmas draws near. As the spirited Journey draws her recluse grandfather out of his shell and discovers an unfinished invention that could save his business, the now-famous but creatively challenged Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) gets wind of another project that could be his if he plays his cards right.
As you can probably tell, the plot for the film is not that far from your typical holiday fare with talk of bankers seizing property if bills aren’t paid by Christmas Eve and villains that are bad but only in so far as to twist their moustaches really furiously when they don’t get their way. Talbert has stayed well within the bounds of the PG rating and hasn’t, like a number of family films as of late, pushed against its boundaries to see how scary he could get away with it being. This is a fine film for the entire family to watch, young and old, and its entertaining as all get out. It’s basically a storybook come to life where the stakes aren’t incredibly high but the feelings tied to them are. Ordinarily, a familiar-feeling plot such as this would get old fast but it’s that pleasant coziness that makes these holiday films such easy to devour treats.
Talbert has already struck a nice mood out of the gate with Rashad’s serene setting of the stage and our colorful introduction to the world of Jeronicus Jangle, brought to life with a mixture of gorgeous CGI and brilliantly designed stop-motion sequences to compliment the bountiful production values. I’m not sure how much money it cost to make the film but it looks stunning, from the handsome set design to the richly detailed costumes layered with the kind of eye-catching colors and textures so appealing you can almost get a sense for what they feel like. So before much of anything happens in the film, you’re already kind of struck by what you’re seeing. Then the music starts.
I guess I knew Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey was a musical but by the time the first song hits it comes on like a locomotive and is a full-out, full-cast introduction to the Jangle toy shop. There’s plenty more where that came from with John Legend, Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and Michael Diskint contributing songs along the way. Not all of them are going to be ear worms but they’re all sung well by the film’s cast and there’s not an outright stinker in the bunch (a song or a voice). Thankfully, Talbert doesn’t cram a song in every five minutes, letting them develop naturally out of his story…which he originally intended as a stage musical. With a few tweaks and adjustments here and there, I can imagine this making the transition to the stage rather easily.
The cast is uniformly great across the board as well, with dependable stalwarts like Rashad and Rose knowing exactly the emotions to mine and just the amount of pressure to put on your tear ducts to get them going. Rose, in particular, had a dynamite run of 15 minutes or so where she rips the roof off of a John Legend song and then gets to show off her acting range in a great scene. I’m not usually a fan of Key (sorry, not sorry) but have to admit his singing voice was solid and his presence in his musical numbers was pretty thrilling. Martin has the toughest role because it’s the one that’s the least interesting – no one cares about the villain in these tales and by the middle of the film you’ll likely forget there’s even this B storyline still in play.
You’ll want to keep your eye on three key performances. As a love weary postmistress who pines for Jeronicus, Lisa Davina Phillip is a riot as she tries to catch his eye. It’s a campy, over-the-top performance that’s far afield from any other in the film but she makes it work thanks to her winning sincerity (though I was surprised to see her singing voice was dubbed by stage actress Marisha Wallace). I was totally knocked over by Whitaker, too. In my experience, the Oscar winner can often come across flat and unlikable but watching his heart get unfrozen by his young granddaughter will truly bring a tear to your eye. Then there’s Mills in a star-making turn as a young girl finding where she fits in by daring to dream big. An excellent role model for girls and boys, BIPOC or other, Journey is a next generation kind of child heroine – celebrations all around. With all the singing and dancing she has to do, it would have been entirely easy for this to have been cast with a “child performer” but Talbert has found that rarity…a star.
With the emphasis on family, the focus on celebrating goodness, and recognizing the power of forgiveness, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has its prime moments when its poised to attack your emotions. I’m an especially easy target but if I do cry, I’m typically a one eye tear kinda guy…this was a two eye cry, though, so make sure to have a hankie ready. You’re apt to shed a tear not because the film is sad but because after a 2020 that has had more than its share of downs, it’s wonderful to get right to the end and be gifted a film that leaves you with a lot of “ups”. Do yourself a favor a gather around the Netflix queue with your friends, family, or fly solo for Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey this Christmas, it’s a present that I think will keep on giving long after the holidays are over.