At the start of David E. Talbert’s delightful “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” narrator Phylicia Rashad promises to unveil a “new story” to her cute grandkids, big holiday fans who are a bit worn out by the classics. While the shape of what follows is familiar enough — it wouldn’t be a holiday tale if it didn’t hinge on the literal power of believing in something — Talbert and his stacked cast find all sorts of fresh dimensions to liven up this joyous musical, from an admirable obsession with human intelligence to an unbridled enthusiasm for the power of the young.
Rashad ushers both said cute grandkids and the audience through the tale, which opens with the literal cracking of a book, a glittering affair entitled “The Invention of Jeronicus Jangle.” The story picks up in a Victorian era-ish small town, bursting with color and whimsy and pure joy, most of it centered around Jeronicus’ magical toy store, Jangles and Things, which offers a “gadgets and gizmos aplenty” situation that rivals anything “The Little Mermaid” ever dreamed of.
Jeronicus (played in his younger years by Justin Cornwell, teeing it up for Forest Whitaker, who takes over after the first act) is a happy, generous family man, and just about the best inventor the world has ever known. He’s mostly fixated on building wondrous toys for kids, and when the quite-literally labeled “final ingredient to the invention” arrives, he seems to be on the cusp of his best work yet (cue musical number advertising as such). Talbert’s film is bursting with good cheer, and “Jingle Jangle” immediately conjures up a world where everyone is brought together by a shared love of invention and a deep respect for intelligence and hard work (what a world!).
But even Jeronicus is blind to some things, like his young apprentice Guftofson (Miles Barrow, who turns it over to a well-cast Keegan-Michael Key for the older years), who is desperate to impress his boss, despite not quite being up to snuff. When Jeronicus’ invention — basically a toy-sized spin on Frankenstein’s monster if he was only evil on the inside and also voiced by, of all people, Ricky Martin — gets his tin hooks into a despondent Guftofson, all bets are off. Suddenly, Jeronicus’ entire life and its work have been taken from him, and nothing will ever be the same.
Until, of course, it is. This is, after all, a good-hearted holiday movie, and while the Jangle family spins through some deep tragedies, Talbert keeps the mood light enough to not ruin any childhoods, while still making sure the stakes are clear. Years later, Jeronicus’ fortune and family are in shambles — though he still has some promising fans in the form of eager young Edison (Kieron L. Dyer) and town mail carrier Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) — and he’s about to set out on one final Christmas that could change everything. While his daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) hasn’t seen him in years, a curious letter encourages her to send her clever daughter Journey (newbie Madalen Mills in a star turn) to Jeronicus’ now-defunct store for a few days of holiday cheer.
That gets us to about the half-hour mark, with plenty more to come. Clocking in at nearly two hours, “Jingle Jangle” may be an overstuffed journey, but high-energy musical sequences and inventive animated scenes keep it moving while top-notch production design brings even its biggest swings to life. The film’s winking self-awareness (a moment when Whitaker exclaims, “background dancers?!”) and its ability to embrace the theatrics make it even more charming, a full-tilt holiday musical that wears all that jingle and jangle on its (wonderfully designed) sleeve.
Plucky attitudes also help a handful of awkward musical sequences go down a bit easier. Cute kids singing about math is never a bad thing, but a few of the film’s slickly produced song-and-dances don’t quite square with the narrative at hand. It’s great to see crotchety old Jeronicus coming out of his shell, but would he really do it with a snowball fight in the center of town? Still, others work magic, including a number of sequences involving the polished Mills, plus a second-act number that shows just how far Guftofson has fallen (as imagined by a very amusing Key).
It all eventually builds to the reveal of yet another magic toy (a sort of steampunk mashup of Teddy Ruxpin and Wall-E) powered by nothing less than belief and a series of inevitable, though still emotional, showdowns. Will Jeronicus recapture his inventive spirit? Will the Jangle clan reunite? Will Guftofson get his comeuppance? Will Buddy, uh, literally fly? The answers may all be plain as day, but that doesn’t dilute the joy with which Talbert and company deliver them, tied up in a festive new package that calls out for the kind of joy and good cheer that never, ever goes out of fashion.
Netflix will release “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is currently in select theaters and will start streaming on the platform on Friday, November 13.
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