Set in the whimsical wintery world of a Christmas bedtime story, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey tells the story of Jeronicus Jangle (Forrest Whitaker), toymaker extraordinaire. A brilliant inventor, Jangle is known around the land for his innovative creations and wild toys. However, when his book of inventions is stolen by his protégé, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key), Jangle is left in ruins as his competition takes credit for his ideas and makes a fortune. Years later, when his granddaughter Journey Jangle (Madelen Mills) arrives, Jangle recognizes her talent but struggles to grapple with his own failures. However, when a new invention begins to reignite the spark of his soul, Jangle also sees the re-emergence of an old foe who wishes to steal the project for himself as well.
Written and directed by David E. Talbert (Almost Christmas), Jingle Jangle is certainly a much more ambitious project than his previous efforts. While Talbert’s work normally focuses on families and relationships, Jangle is a steam-punk sight for the senses. Featuring stunning special effects and some spectacular musical numbers, the film effectively brings to life the magic and whimsy that families want from their Christmas classics. Frankly, the attention to detail in the visuals is often truly remarkable, with each whizzing gear and popping spring feeling like an extension of Jeronicus Jangle’s complicated emotional state.
Speaking of Jangle himself, Whitaker handles the role in with a mixture of sadness and charm as the once-great toymaker. For someone who is not particularly known for his work in children’s fare (has he ever done a film like this before?), Whitaker embraces the script and manages to bring a subtle spark to the character. While much of the cast are in fine form here, from Key’s mustache-twirling villain Gustafsen to the always regal Phylicia Rashad, the real story of the film is newcomer Madalen Mills who is absolutely wonderful as Jeronicus’ granddaughter and protégé, Journey Jangle. In her first major role, Mills absolutely lights up the screen with her performance and holds the film together with a sparkling debut. (And, frankly, it’s also refreshing to see a holiday myth that features an entirely African-American cast as well.)
Despite the magical music and eye-popping contraptions, the true heart of the film lies in its celebration of belief. While this is a theme that extends through numerous films at this time of year, there is something special about Jangle in the way that it explores its message. With each failed invention, Jeronicus Jangle falls further into bitterness, refusing more and more to try. Having seen his best days stolen from him, his frustration is understandable. Burned out and broken, Jangle is a man who has lost everything and feels frozen in his inability to move forward. (Seems appropriate for 2020, doesn’t it?)
However, with the arrival of Journey, light begins to enter the room again. Transformed by the belief that ‘nothing is impossible if you believe’, Journey recognizes that, even in our worst circumstances, hope exists. Her youthful innocence and willingness to take risks have not yet been marred by trauma and she is able to find joy in the midst of suffering. As a result of Journey’s willingness to believe that there is more on the horizon, Jeronicus is forced to confront his own emotional blockage and, potentially, allow himself to heal. While the film doesn’t take particularly focus on what to believe in, it is refreshing at this time for a film to remind audiences in 2020 that belief and hope are essential, especially in the darkest of moments.
Having said this, the film does have a few flaws. Clocking in at just over two hours, admittedly the film does feel a tad too long at time. What’s more, though some of the musical numbers are truly amazing, there are also those that fall flat. (Whitaker does his best but he likely does not have a singing career in his future.) Even so, these are minor quibbles. The truth is that, for the most part, there is more than jingle and magic in Jingle Jangle to keep families enchanted through the holiday season.
And, in 2020, that may be the most that one could hope for.
Jingle Jangle is available on Netflix on November 13th, 2020.