Dir: David E Talbert. Starring: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Ricky Martin. PG, 119 mins
Christmas is but a scattered collection of sights and sounds: the roaring of the fire, trees dripping in gold and stardust, the clatter of carriages, a song in the air. These things are gathered from the pages of dusty, old books or from half-forgotten memories. But they belong now to the feeling of family, home, or whichever way we each find a moment of togetherness.
Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has taken this idea to heart – more so than any of the streamer’s usual holiday fare. It feels nourishing when others are so often sickly sweet. It may be the same old tale of plucky kids awakening a local Scrooge to the magic of Christmas, but writer-director David E Talbert has nailed the details so well that families will return to its comforts year after year.
Jingle Jangle – which is unconnected to the illegal stimulant that’s passed around in Pixy Stix on Netflix’s teen drama Riverdale, by the way – opens with a grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) reading from a strange-looking book. It seems to be powered by an intricate network of cogs. She tells a story about a toymaker named Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), known in the quaint, bustling town of Cobbleton as “The Greatest Inventor of Them All”. But when his apprentice, Gustafson (Miles Barrow), makes off with the blueprints to all his inventions, Jeronicus is robbed not only of his business, but of his hope.
Many years later, we return to Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), now a pawnbroker who buries himself away among all the other broken and unwanted things. Up on the hill, the sickly, bright lights of the factory belonging to his former apprentice (Keegan-Michael Key) blaze through the night. Having marketed all the designs he stole from Jeronicus, he’s now the richest toymaker in the world. When Jeronicus’s estranged granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) turns up on his doorstep, she’s dismayed to discover he’s thrown in the towel – she’s a brilliant inventor, too, and wanted to spend the holidays tinkering away in his workshop.
As Journey busies herself with rekindling her grandfather’s spirit, the audience is left to soak in the loveliness of Michael Wilkinson’s costumes and Gavin Bocquet’s production design. This is classic Victoriana shrunk down to a holiday postcard. There are hoop skirts and velvet waistcoats, rendered in stripes and chequers of green, gold, and red. Steampunk robots buzz around the sky, while Gustafson’s factory is simultaneously inspired by Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and the land of Oz. It’s important to see this kind of world inhabited by a primarily black cast. Hollywood remains fixated on stories of black suffering – here is one that celebrates black joy & ingenuity, while rebuking the near all-white holiday canon.
The musical numbers – which feature input from Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars’s songwriting partner, and John Legend – pack a surprising punch. These aren’t instant earworms, cynically designed to be repeated ad nauseum, but mature opportunities to show off the skills of the film’s cast and choreographer Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman). Talbert initially wanted Jingle Jangle to debut on stage – and it shows. Anika Noni Rose, as Journey’s mother, turns “Make it Work” into a powerhouse anthem, while Whitaker delivers Jeronicus’s ballads with all the gallant tenderness of Les Misérables’s Jean Valjean. Jingle Jangle might just be this season’s showstopper.