Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is sort of like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms only with an actual heart and an abiding sense of whimsy. It doesn’t hurt that unlike Nutcracker, Jingle Jangle seems to understand who its audience is, kids. But I doubt adults would be too bored as it’s such a sweet and joyous time that you’d almost have to be a grinch to not enjoy it.
David E. Talbert has created a world that allows a child’s imagination to run free. It’s not a thoroughly thought-out world but it’s thought out enough. Talbert, who also wrote the script, is from the theater, which makes Jingle Jangle feel more like a play than a movie. However, this allows the world of Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) to feel real and tactile in a way most fantasy movies geared toward children often do not.
Jingle Jangle tries to walk the thin line of encouraging curiosity and scene while also just throwing up its hands in exasperation and saying “You have to believe!” But seeing as it’s a kid’s movie I can hardly blame it. What Talbert’s script may lack in terms of world-building or deeply drawn characters he more than makes up for just having fun playing in the world of Jeronicus.
Characters say such lines as “Take the circumference of the spectacular. Divided by the second derivative of the sensational…” Honestly dialogue like this is right up my alley. It shows a delight in language that many Christmas movies, kids movies, and quite frankly Hallmark movies, don’t often care for. Talbert’s characters speak in odd ways and idiosyncratic ways. That’s where the characters come alive, in the ways in which they express themselves.
Jingle Jangle combines elements of steam-punk and plain old Dickensian production design. This results in a deliciously sumptuous set for Talbert’s characters to dance and sing around. The songs range from catchy to filler but none of them feel as if they are dragging the production to a halt.
Talbert rides a shaky boundary between disposable kids’ fluff and very real emotional exploration dealing with grief and loneliness. The plot deals with Jeronicus, a famed toymaker who loses everything when his apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) steals his latest invention a mechanical sentient doll Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin) along with all his other inventions. Gustafson goes on to be one of the wealthiest and admired toymakers in the land while poor Jeronicus reeling from the betrayal never seems to recover.
Soon, Jernocius’s wife Joanne (Sharon Rose) dies, leaving him to raise their daughter Jessica (Diana Babincova) alone. The long morbid arm of Disney seems almost eternal at times. Jeronicus sends Jessica away and soon the great toyshop “Jangle and Things” becomes a Pawn Shop.
Jingle Jangle has an almost infectious energy about it. Much like The Greatest Showman, it has the admiral quality of wanting so much to please us that you have to admire it if only because it’s so gosh darn sincere. Despite the underlying heavy emotional themes Talbert never allows it to dampen the optimistic joy underneath it all.
Jessica eventually grows up, now played by Anika Noni Rose, and has a daughter of her own, Journey (Madalen Mills). Journey goes to live with her Grandpa and tries to make him believe in himself and re-discover his life of inventing. It’s not the most original but it works for what it is and more than enough.
Whitaker is, as always, a delight to watch. Here he plays a grumpy absent-minded professor type to perfection. Soft-spoken and earnest it’s clear he’s having a ball.
Younger Jeronicus is played by Justin Cornwell who seems to have a larger than life quality to him. Charming and with his square jaw and melodic voice makes Whitaker’s quiet introverted version all the more heartbreaking. He is a man beaten down by the world and doesn’t quite know how to get back up.
Mills, however, is the star of the show. Talbert knows how to get the best from his actors and that includes the child actors. She is an effervescent presence, as she sings and dances without missing a beat. Mills has a hard job, not just because she is acting across from Forest Whitaker, but because she is holding a large portion of the movie on her shoulders. To say that she carries it with ease would be an understatement.
There’s a subplot involving the town postal worker Mrs. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) who is in love with Jeronicus. Jeronicus is too wrapped up in his own world to notice though. But Phillip takes a one-note character and imbues it with dimensions and notes that make her a heartfelt and warm addition to the story.
At one point there’s a scene where Jeronicus kisses her on the cheek. Phillip’s face as she awaits the kiss and her reaction to it afterward, is an effective and deeply moving journey. But that’s what makes Jingle Jangle work.
These little moments between the big musical numbers are what lifts the film above its peers. Moments like when Jeronicus apologies to Jessica for not being a better father are wrapped up in an emotional truth that is shockingly effective. I wasn’t expecting to be close to tears watching Jingle Jangle but here we are.
Jingle Jangle is shot by Remi Adefarasin and for the most part, it feels like a televised play adaptation. But thanks to the production design this is okay as it allows you to take in the lovingly crafted sets of Jangles and Things. Though at times Adefarasin and Talbert unchain their camera and Jingle Jangle comes alive visually, if only for a short while.
I’m not saying Jingle Jangle is a masterpiece, but I am saying it’s masterfully done at times. It’s a musical Christmas movie for kids, not Ozu. If you’re going into Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey full of cynicism and vinegar then that’s on you for not being able to read the tea leaves. I quite enjoyed it.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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