It's okay for Christmas movies to be a bit rough around the edges. The festive season provides enough sparkle and goodwill to cover over plenty of storytelling cracks with wrapping paper and a bow. Very much in that vein, then, fantasy musical Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has arrived on Netflix in time for the whole family to enjoy its entirely uncynical parade of magic and mistletoe.
Set in a sort of steampunk not-quite-past, the movie focuses on the renowned inventor Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), who is now operating his famed “world of wishes and wonder” as a drab, poorly-lit pawn shop. Decades earlier, his former apprentice Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) stole an innovative, sentient matador figure (Ricky Martin via motion-capture) he had produced, as well as his book of designs and took credit for all of them. He's now a Willy Wonka-esque toy impresario, while Whitaker struggles with debt in the darkness. The arrival of Jeronicus's estranged granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) – herself a budding inventor – inevitably begins to rekindle his love for creativity.
So far, so Christmassy. There's certainly no denying the festive cheer that sits at the heart of director David E. Talbert's barmy, colourful vision – a passion project that has been gestating for many years. It's a sunny and silly adventure, supported by an array of musical numbers penned by a team including John Legend and Grammy winner Philip Lawrence. Even at a rather bloated two hours, the movie maintains a delightful, ramshackle energy without ever really letting up its pace.
Jingle Jangle's biggest asset is its cast, led by an impressively curmudgeonly Whitaker as the film's closest analogue to a Scrooge figure. He showcases some surprisingly proficient vocal pipes and modulates the required grumpiness nicely without overwhelming the gentle lightness of the storytelling. The perpetually peppy Journey proves to be his ghost of past, present and future, forcing Jeronicus to deal with his fractured relationship with his own daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose), his current financial turmoil and, of course, the magical inventions he's no longer bringing to the world. Supporting players, including Lisa Davina Phillip as Jeronicus's lovestruck postie, find plenty of room to make an impact, though the movie should have made more of Michael-Key's villain, who lacks the required nastiness you expect from a true Christmas baddie.
There's a lot packed in here – seemingly a lifetime of ideas on the part of Talbert – and the movie threatens to burst at the seams thanks to the sheer quantity of stuff on offer. The structure of the story is absolutely all over the place, taking in corporate espionage, fantasy-inflected snowball fights and more skits about sparkling manifestations of mathematical formulae than any movie could hope to need. When a slightly psychopathic toy bullfighter voiced by the guy who gave the world Livin' Da Vida Loca barely gets five minutes of screen time, something has gone amiss.
It doesn't help that the movie can't decide how far it wants to commit to being a musical. Rather than a story driven by the emotion and narrative of its song and dance numbers, this feels more like a conventional family adventure which occasionally remembers it's supposed to have songs in it. A lot more music – or equally a lot less – would have done the world of good. Instead, the movie feels caught between two stalls and the songs are eminently forgettable, despite the admirable colour and chaos Talbert brings to their staging.
With all of that said, the movie's flaws often serve to make it even more appropriate as a Christmas movie. Who among us hasn't spent a Christmas evening feeling over-stuffed and incoherent? At times, Jingle Jangle is a straightforward delight while, occasionally, it serves as yet another case study for why Netflix's policy of handing creatives absolute freedom does not always produce the best end product. With a firmer hand on the filmmaker's shoulder, some of its excesses and flaws could've been reined in. As fun as it is, the movie has a disappointing habit of flying off the rails.
That criticism all seems churlish, though, in the face of such wonderful Christmas joy. Particularly, it must be said, the movie feels important as a very rare mainstream festive movie built around Black characters – complete with a neat little Black Panther nod for the eagle-eyed Marvel fans in the audience. In the wake of a miserable 2020, the spectacle of a wildly silly and brilliantly diverse Christmas blockbuster is worth its weight in gold.