Writer/director David E. Talbert originally envisioned Jingle Jangle for the stage, but could never quite crack it. It came together when he pivoted to making it a movie, and now it’s here as one of the flashier entries in Netflix’s 2020 Christmas selection box. Talbert has played in this film genre before (2016’s Almost Christmas), but is more renowned for his theatre work.
Jingle Jangle’s stage origins are still visible – not least in the limited number of locations and regular musical numbers – but it has enough charm and festive production value to see off humbugs.
Jeronicus Jangle is an inventor with borderline magical powers. On the verge of stratospheric success with his latest creation, Jangle’s life is upended when his apprentice, Gustafson, steals his blueprints and his prototype.
One of many nicely crafted animated interludes shows how tragedy and isolation destroy Jangle’s prospects, while Gustafson’s soars to success on the back of stolen ideas. Forest Whitaker plays the older Jangle, and Keegan-Michael Key is Gustafson (neither looks much like their younger counterpart, played respectively by Justin Cornwell and Miles Barrow – which is more distracting on screen than it might’ve been on stage).
Whitaker brings a gentle gravitas to the weary Jeronicus: his formerly delightful toy emporium now a dusty pawnbrokers. He’s given a Christmas deadline by which to create another game-changing invention before his shop is repossessed. Into the mix comes his estranged granddaughter, Journey (peppy newcomer Madalen Mills), herself a keen inventor.
One of Jingle Jangle’s big strengths is its catchy musical numbers, mostly overseen by Bruno Mars songwriter Philip Lawrence (with one track by John Legend, who also serves as producer). They’re accompanied by irresistible choreography from The Greatest Showman’s Ashley Wallen. Wide framing and restrained editing generously showcase the performers’ impressive routines; the joyful highlight is a snowball fight/dance-off around the movie’s midpoint.
This is a very polished product: the streets of Cobbleton are created via impressive sets, the VFX are mostly top-end, and the costumes – all ribbon-reds and garland-greens – add to the storybook-come-to-life quality (the framing device sees Phylicia Rashad’s Grandma reading a whirring clockwork tome to her two young grandchildren). Plus, the predominantly Black cast make a positively refreshing change to the casts that usually occupy Christmas-y Victoriana.
It’s disappointing then, that it feels like there’s relatively little film between the cheer-generating musical numbers. There’s a dearth of incident outside of the songs, and the narrative’s emotional beats never quite get a foothold. It’s a hugely predictable plot – even by the forgiving standards of the Christmas genre – and a fair amount of goodwill is required to ignore plot holes that you could drive Santa’s sleigh through. When the snow has settled, it’ll be the songs that stick with you longer than the film does.