As a single entry in the growing Netflix original Christmas catalog, a name like “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” does little to distinguish itself. But concealed underneath its woefully uninspired title is a holiday musical brimming with unabashed joy. It’s a film that’s further distinguished by its star-studded, all Black principal cast and crew. In a genre as historically whitewashed as the Yuletide family flick, the potential for representation alone is a point of interest. But just as importantly, “Jingle Jangle” is a film with deceptively grand ambitions.
The basic plot of the film follows Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) — a genius toymaker capable of bringing his inventions to life through the “Square Root of Possible” — the film’s STEM-flavored take on “holiday magic.” But when his apprentice Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) makes off with his blueprints and drives him out of business, Jangle swears off inventing for good. Decades later, Gustafson has built a corporate empire upon Jangle’s stolen designs and, when he again conspires to steal more of his life’s work, Jangle’s granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), must help the inventor rediscover his scientific “magic.”
If this broad outline of the plot seems crowded already, it is. Even with its palpably hour-too-long runtime, the most consistent issue with “Jingle Jangle” is just how much it tries to do. On one hand, this ambition is a change of pace in a genre infamously populated with plot deficient, time slot fodder, but it makes the film’s narrative feel like a collage of half-conceived ideas. Stapled onto the main plot is a number of unimpactful loose ends: Journey’s pseudo-romantic subplot with the young Edison (Kieron L. Dyer) is cute but unnecessary, as is Jangle’s relationship with the neighborhood mail lady (Lisa Davina Phillip). Perhaps the most egregiously unneeded character is Buddy 3000 — a magical, merchandise-moving MacGuffin/sidekick whose introduction in the second act robs further attention from the ensemble cast.
It’s easy to put aside these criticisms though. As with much of the holiday genre, “Jingle Jangle” shines as a background watch — in this more forgiving context, the authentic joy in every scene and element is clear. Whitaker’s eccentric, mild mannered and passive aggressive take on the archetypal Scrooge anchors the rest of the cast’s delightful performances and there’s hardly a weak link among them. Other standouts include Key — whose flamboyant, mustache-twirling villainy marks Gustafson as one of the most memorable Yuletide baddies in recent memory — and Mills — whose science-y twist on the magical girl protagonist is adorable enough to make up for its lack of nuance. But again, with such a delightful cast, it’s especially a shame that not all are given satisfying screen time.
What the film does execute perfectly is its musical numbers, reflective of director David E. Talbert’s celebrated theatrical background. Though there’s few structural surprises — “Square Root of Possible” is the uplifting lead girl power ballad, “Magic Man G” is a first act villain solo and so on — the numbers are universally self-aware and catchy. Jangle is hilariously mystified as R&B background singers materialize in “Miles and Miles,” while “This Day,” co-written by Usher, is an incredible hip-hop infused theme that reprises throughout with magnificent blocking and choreography. It would be no exaggeration to call the “Jingle Jangle” soundtrack a genuine contender for best holiday album in decades.
There’s plenty of flack that could be given to “Jingle Jangle” — much of it likely well-deserved. The plot is a muddled drudge through familiar tropes and certainly would have benefitted from another editing pass. The STEM-y top coat over traditional holiday magic is occasionally forced almost to the point of pandering. But taken for what the film is, these criticisms hardly stick. There’s an unadulterated holiday spirit at the center of “Jingle Jangle,” and while it may not make up for its structural issues, there’s hardly a better new film to get in the holiday spirit.