REVIEW: “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”

Who doesn’t love a good Christmas movie musical? I certainly do, as do most others, I think. There’s just something about Christmas and musicals that go very well together. So, when I heard that Netflix was making Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, I was interested to see what they’d pull together. The trailer looked like a whimsical delight, filled with gorgeous sets and an all-star cast. And, having seen the film, that’s precisely what it is. While Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey could stand to be about thirty minutes shorter, it’s a bundle of holiday joy packed with fantastic performances, gorgeous visuals, and some pretty solid songs. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There may be mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (written and directed by David E. Talbert)
A musical adventure and a visual spectacle for the ages, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a wholly fresh and spirited family holiday event. Set in the gloriously vibrant town of Cobbleton, the film follows legendary toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) whose fanciful inventions burst with whimsy and wonder. But when his trusted apprentice (Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key) steals his most prized creation, it’s up to his equally bright and inventive granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) — and a long-forgotten invention — to heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within. From the imagination of writer-director David E. Talbert and featuring original songs by John Legend, Philip Lawrence, and Davy Nathan, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey reminds us of the strength of family and the power of possibility. 

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey tells the story of an inventor, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), who, after inventing Don Juan (Ricky Martin), a toy that can come to life, gets betrayed by his apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key). Gustafson steals all of Jeronicus’ inventions and uses them to become the world’s most prominent toymaker, leaving Jeronicus in staggering debt and depression. Years later, Jeronicus is visited by his granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), who appears to possess the same gift for invention that Jeronicus once had. Perhaps, with Journey’s help, Jeronicus can get out of his funk and rediscover his belief in himself and in the magic of what he does. It’s a solid premise for a Christmas movie, and all the elements are there for a fulfilling story, but the whole thing is hampered by uneven pacing and an unfocused script.

Ostensibly, the film should be about Journey trying to connect with Jeronicus, bringing him out of his Ebenezer Scrooge-like funk and back into the joyous being he once was. It would seem the film wants to be the story of their relationship. However, Journey doesn’t appear on screen until about 50 minutes into the movie. Instead, those first fifty minutes are just the setup for the film’s premise—spanning from Jeronicus’ downfall as a young man to where we find for him for the bulk of the story. It’s the kind of thing you’d typically cover through a song or two in the first ten minutes of a movie like this, but drug out for an additional forty minutes. For a while, I started to wonder if the trailers had misled me and Forest Whitaker’s older incarnation of Jeronicus would only be in the last little bit of the film, but around the half-hour mark, the action jumps ahead in time and catches up with Jeronicus as an old man. It’s here that the film properly establishes what it is actually going to be about. Now, to be fair, this setup is very interesting, but at some point, you definitely start to feel how it drags on and I believe the movie would have benefitted greatly from trimming a lot of this down.

Once the film gets going, though, it’s plenty entertaining. Forest Whitaker and Madalen Mills have a great rapport and their scenes together are delightful to watch. Through their performances, you can see how much love there is between Jeronicus and Journey, just waiting for Journey to drag it out of him. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t focus anywhere near enough on the two of them for one to be able to properly follow these arcs. Much of the middle of the film is dedicated to Journey and Edison (Kieron Dyer), Jeronicus’ new apprentice/shopkeep, fixing one of Jeronicus’ inventions only for Gustafson to steal it and try to sell it off as his own. While Keegan-Michael Key absolutely steals every scene he’s in, spending so much time on his character’s subplot while having also spent nearly half the film setting up the premise robs the film of its central through-line: the relationship between Journey and Jeronicus. All of this extra stuff is delightful, but our attention should be spent on tracking how Journey seeps her way into Jeronicus’ heart and rewarms it. Instead, there’s just so much other stuff going on that all we’re left with is a few expository scenes between them where we see Jeronicus growing a bit softer towards Journey, but it never feels as natural as it should.

While the film falters narratively, it more than makes up for it with creative ideas, superb visuals and performances, and solid songs. The pacing is messy, but the movie hits all of the notes you expect a Christmas film to hit, and, because of that, it remains a mostly-satisfying experience. Sure, it’s in desperate need of some editing, but the story’s not difficult to understand and there’s a lot of devilishly interesting ideas at play. The notion that both Jeronicus and Journey have some kind of inherent magic that aids in their invention skills is neat, and the film shows that off with some pretty splendid special effects. The visuals, as a whole, are gorgeous. It’s clear that Netflix poured money into this project, and I’m so glad they did. The sets are big, well-designed, and well dressed. The costumes simply ooze atmosphere, managing to feel both timeless and classic all at once.

The songs are a bit of a mixed bag, but more of them work than don’t work. Written primarily by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and Michael Diskint, the songs are not necessarily the most memorable parts of the film, but they’re sufficient—and a few of them are pretty catchy. My favorites are probably the opening number, “This Day,” Keegan-Michael Key’s big number, “Magic Man G,” and a number near the climax of the film, “Make it Work.” But, on the whole, most of the songs are pretty solid, even if some of the lyrics aren’t stellar. The songs are deftly buoyed by some impressive choreography from Ashley Wallen, who takes advantage of the scale of the sets and stages some truly remarkable numbers.

The visual effects are just as breathtaking as the choreography. Of particular note are the inventions that Jeronicus creates—both Don Juan and Buddy are animated with a mixture of what appears to be CGI and stop-motion animation, and it’s gorgeous. Ricky Martin excels as the voice of Don Juan; he oozes charming villainy and his performance is such fun to see. His scenes with Keegan-Michael Key are some of the funniest moments in the film and had me repeatedly rolling with laughter. Honestly, all of the performances are solid. Forest Whitaker is captivating to watch, bringing such depth and heart to Jeronicus. Madalen Mills impresses as Journey, frequently holding her own against both Whitaker and Key. Even those actors in smaller roles, like Sharon Rose, Lisa Davina Phillip, Phylicia Rashad, Ria Calvin, and Kenyah Sandy, have standout moments. If the script is a bit disappointing, every other element of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey impresses.

All in all, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a bit of a mixed bag. Its narrative is a bit messy, though there is still plenty about it to enjoy. Its visuals are gorgeous—with brilliant costumes, sumptuous sets, and charming visual effects; the performances are memorable—with Keegan-Michael Key, Forest Whittaker, and Madalen Mills being obvious standouts; and the songs are solid and catchy—with my favorites being “This Day,” “Magic Man G,” and “Make It Work.” Ultimately, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story is a fun watch. It might not be the most memorable Christmas movie, but it’s still quite enjoyable and it’s nice to see a film like this led by a cast predominantly filled with actors of color. More films like this, please! If you’re looking for something new to watch this holiday season, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story might just be the film for you.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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