Biting off more than you chew is pretty much a non-negotiable requirement of Christmas celebrations which, if they aren’t doing everything from food to togetherness to presents and, hopefully, joyous bonhomie to excess, simply aren’t trying hard enough.
One of the latest festive offerings from Netflix, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, written and directed by David E. Talbert, clearly subscribes wholeheartedly to this idea, stuffing a ridiculously pleasing amount of Christmas spirit and joy into a two-hour exuberant extravaganza of song, dance and lost-and-found opportunity.
As musicals go, Jingle Jangle is gloriously over-the-top, the cinematic equivalent of trying to place a jumbo-sized bundle of goodies into a shoebox and hoping it will all fit neatly.
The thing is – it doesn’t: while the pieces are almost uniformly lovely and spirit raising from characterisation to the song-and-dance set pieces to the technicolour magic and wonder of its tale of redemption on a monumentally epic scale, the film is entirely sure how to fit them all together in the way that characterises the greats of musical theatre.
It’s like Talbert sought to place every idea about Christmas he’d ever had into one musical, and while that’s laudable and almost successful, it results in a film where all the parts, delightful though they are, don’t always add up to a completely successful whole.
It feels Scrooge-like to even say that because if there is one thing among many that Jingle Jangle it is a Christmas film par excellence that leaves you feeling like pretty anything is possible.
It goes without saying the ending, special details notwithstanding, is joyously inspiring, the equivalent of melting down a truckload of candy canes, imbibing them all at once while someone shouts encouraging bon mots from the sidelines.
It is damn near impossible, like the singers and dancers who populate the movie’s luscious set pieces, to not walk away from Jingle Jangle with a jaunty spring in your step, a smile on your face and a desire for a steampunk that flies and bats its eyelids cutely.
In that sense, it’s very much Christmas mission accomplished.
Much of that giddily happy spirit comes from Jingle Jangle‘s characters who overcome all kinds of adversity, the kind that Christmas routinely solves without blinking or spilling its eggnog, by film’s end in the kind of way that reaffirms the idea that terrible things can only last so long and that the bad guys only get away with their skullduggery and lack of tinsel-bedecked niceness until justice gets its Christmasness and fights back with sugar coated plum and vigour.
The central character, and the source of the film’s multi-meaning title is Journey (Madalen Mills) who travels to see her grandfather Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker as the older man, Justin Cornwell as the younger version), spurred on by her mother Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) who has been estranged from her father for a great many years but who longs to be in contact with him again.
Jeronicus, however, who has fallen hard from his onetime glory days as an inventor of much in-demand toys to working as a pawnbroker who no longer believes in himself (or anyone else for that matter) – belief is a very important idea throughout, bringing all kinds of things to life, including a renewed future and a reputation restoring toy known as Buddy 3000 (voiced by Tobias Poppe) isn’t happy to see his granddaughter with whom he actually shares quite a bit of enthusiastic, inventive genius in common.
You can see where this is going from a million miles away – Journey will awaken her grandfather to his previous promise and joy for life and everything from reputations to family relationship will be put lyrically to rights – but you don’t care because it is all delivered in such a deliciously sweet and charming way that begrudging Jingle Jangle even one moment of its celebratory exuberance feels cruel.
This is a film that is out to celebrate the very best of the human spirit, the glories of Christmas at its sparkling light and hope-filled best and the importance of belonging and do it, welcomingly, with an all-black cast who are a refreshing change from the monoculture of most, almost all in fact, Christmas stories, especially those of a family entertainment disposition.
As far as its constituent pieces go, Jingle Jangle exceeds brilliantly in delivering on its goal of redefining what a Christmas musical can do while ticking all the boxes we’d expect of a story like this.
The characters are beautifully crafted, with everyone from Jeronicus and Journey through to Jessica, Jeronicus’s apprentice Edison (Kieron L. Dyer) and scene stealer and Jeronicus love interest with verve, outrageous sense of presence and burbling hilarity, Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) entertaining their way through a slew of punchy, exhilaratingly upbeat tracks which all seem to end in a big dance scene of some kind.
Visually Jingle Jangle is a festive treat on steroids, with bright, glossy colours and vividly realised landscapes, both without and within constantly reaffirming that you are in a Christmas film that knows its a Christmas film and which wants to shout it from the rooftops.
What lets it down, alas, is that in trying to put all these various pieces together in one limited duration whole, it races to do too many things at once as it tries to be too many things to too many people.
At times you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching Wicked or The Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which is not a bad thing except that it does suggest a musical that isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be.
This shaky sense of identity doesn’t rob Jingle Jangle of its many effervescent, technicolour splendours nor its spirit lifting sense that life, especially at Christmas is a sensational and wonderful thing but it does mean that you’re so busy trying to keep up with the million-and-one things it’s trying to do, that you often end up feeling a little disengaged from proceedings.
It’s a not a fatal flaw, and Jingle Jangle is far from being a Christmas turkey (boom tish!), but it is not a Christmas classic in the making, leaving you feeling not entirely invested in the ending, emotionally satisfying though it no doubt is on paper, and wondering what might have been if the contents of this stocking stuffer had been paired down just a little and all those gorgeously-realised parts, like the heart that Powers Buddy 3000 with a belief-driven glow, could have been allowed to do their thing without jostling for space or attention.