As the country heads into a holiday season unlike any other, it may be harder than ever to come by moments of genuine joy and delight. Thankfully, Netflix is doing their part to bring cheer directly to living rooms with a family-friendly movie musical filled to the brim with so much holiday spirit and goodwill that even the grinchiest (yes, it’s a word) among us will be hard-pressed to stay that way. Written and directed by David E. Talbert, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a big, bold affair with a storyline that spans generations, over-the-top dance numbers in gilded, bursting sets and a star-studded cast that brings it all together. At a solid two hours, Talbert uses every single minute (and every inch of every frame) to pack the film full of plot, a feat that at times feels too overwhelming to follow. But as the story winds through its many twists and turns, heading for its inevitably warm-hearted resolution, all is forgiven watching such an original, ambitious production actually pull off everything it sets out to do.
Employing that classic holiday film trope of a story within a story, Jingle Jangle begins with a grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) offering to read a special holiday story to her grandchildren. With that, we’re transported to a whimsical town called Cobbleton, where Jeronicus Jangle (played at first by Justin Cornwell) is the proprietor of a popular toy store where the shelves are filled with enchanting (and often enchanted) inventions of his own creation. With his wife Joanne (Sharon Rose) and young daughter Jessica (Diaana Babnicova) by his side and his apprentice, Gustafson (the younger version played by Miles Barrow) as a trusted right-hand, business is booming. But Gustafson isn’t as happy as the Jangle family, feeling under-appreciated and ignored. And with the coaxing of an animated doll (one of Jangle’s best inventions, voiced by Ricky Martin), he absconds into the night, taking a book full of all of Jeronicus’s best ideas with him. His life’s work gone, tragedy strikes the Jangles while they’re down, and though he loves her, Jeronicus decides to send young Jessica away rather than try to raise her in the midst of his grief and failure. And that’s all within the first 20 minutes or so…
The bulk of the film takes place 20 or so years after Gustafson’s dastardly deed; now, a grumpy but endearing Jeronicus is played by Forest Whitaker (the older Gustafson is Keegan-Michael Key) and a grown Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) sends her own daughter, Journey (Madalen Mills) to stay with Jeronicus. The store is now a far cry from its glory days, a run-down pawn shop Jeronicus can barely keep open; he’s deep in debt to Mr. Delacroix (Hugh Bonneville, “Downton Abbey”) and the last thing he has any interest in is a precocious granddaughter he didn’t know existed, particularly one with a talent for inventing that rivals his own. What’s more, Gustafson has finally reached the end of the book of ideas he stole so long ago, meaning he’s on the verge of being discovered for being the fake he is.
With all these moving pieces (like one of Jeronicus’s steampunk-inspired toys, all levers and gears chugging along), it’s easy to get overwhelmed keeping track of everything. But Talbert has it all under control, and what’s more, he makes it utterly charming to watch unfold. Musical numbers erupt to give characters their moment in the spotlight, and sub-plots pop in to keep things interesting; a film this robust might’ve been just as enjoyable without these extras, but like ornaments on a Christmas tree, there’s always room for more. Every actor in the jam-packed ensemble is fully committed to the fun; Whitaker’s curmudgeon is betrayed only by his subtle misty-eyed sentimentality, and Key seems to relish Gustafson’s goofy ego and villainous hijinx (his musical number is a show-stopper). In her first film role, Madalen Mills is a true discovery, carrying a significant amount of the film’s narrative on her tiny shoulders and belting out an anthem to rival Frozen‘s “Let It Go.”
By the time we return to Grandma and the story she’s been reading to her grandchildren, you may (like me) long have seen where this all is going. And though the connection across generations is predictable, it’s nevertheless a welcome, big red bow to tie it all up, perfectly at home in a holiday film as likable as this. In a season typically defined by pulling out the classics and revisiting traditional favorites, a film like Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey makes a strong case for being added to your festive rotation.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is now streaming on Netflix.
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