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Jingle Jangle is Better Than Mere Representation

Image courtesy of Netflix

In the opening framing device of Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, two pre-teen children are enjoying the warmth of a turn-of-the-20th-century fireplace on Christmas Eve. The girl thinks she sees something special in the fire that her brother doesn’t believe. When their aged grandmother, played by the luminous Phylicia Rashad, arrives for storytime, the boy excitedly makes a quick request for “The Night Before Christmas,” one met with a face of disappointment from his sister. Upon seeing her granddaughter, the stoic grandmother answers with a knowing smile, “I think it’s time for a new story.”

How right you are, Phylicia. How right you are! Call it high time for Black representation if you would like, but we can do better by Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey than that single platform. Instead, remove the pigeon-holing label to welcome a new holiday favorite worthy of elated appreciation from any viewer. What gloriously unfolds next from the unlocked cogs-and-gears of the thick book the grandmother opens is a wellspring of vibrant and hopeful creativity.

The seated grandmother begins to read a long storybook to her two flanking grandchildren.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The grandmother tells of a tale of Jeronicus Jangle (TV actor Justin Cornwell of Training Day), the greatest inventor their land ever saw. Together with Joanne (newcomer Sharon Rose), the couple maintained the popular “Jangles and Things” storefront that brought joy to the masses. Business and ingenuity were never better as Jeronicus was on the cusp of a new automaton doll (voiced by Ricky Martin) that stood to be his greatest achievement yet. However, his rebuffed and impatient teen apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow of TV’s Scoop) would steal his mentor’s prized invention and journal of future plans. Years later, the grown-up Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) usurped Jeronicus’s business and enthusiasm to become a huge toy industry magnate named Magic Man G. 

Dejected and downtrodden, the elder Jeronicus (headlining Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) faded from the public eye, and his once-great store was reduced to a pawn shop of knick-knacks on the brink of closing without a new invention. He cannot seem to find the confidence to create anymore. The arrival of Jeronicus’s intelligent and kind granddaughter Journey (the debuting Madalen Mills) becomes a presence of new energy. She has the youthful drive and talent (boy, does she ever) to turn family disappointment, personal fulfillment, and visionary fortunes around if she can help break her grandfather’s funk. Whitaker is marvelous in that type of redemptive role.

One well-placed lesson says “never be afraid when people can’t see what you see.” In this quest to regain industrious spirit, the faith to believe in yourself, your work, and others is everything. Those that can are boosted and emboldened. Those that cannot become doomed with the fear described in the follow-up of that line: “Only be afraid when YOU no longer see it.” That’s an outstanding message to behold with all of its possibilities. 

A double dose of artistic flair spins Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey like one of the whirling dervishes, full of bells and whistles, created in its on-screen workshops. For the eyes, digitally carved puppets and dioramas from the visual effects team supervised by Brad Parker become transition vignettes for Rashad’s narration and story advancement. When the humans step in, they occupy dazzling Tiffany glass menagerie sets encrusted by production designer Gavin Bocquet (the Star Wars prequel trilogy) and vivacious costume selections from Oscar-nominated designer Michael Wilkinson (American Hustle). Forged with Oscar-worthy finery, not an inch of this movie feels like a retread from some other folklore.

For the ears, the treat is even greater. Executive music producer Harvey Mason, Jr. (Sing) and music supervisor Julia Michels (A Star is Born) have empowered Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey as a full-fledged musical with little Mills owning the stage. The film is filled with original songs from the song-and-lyrics team of Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, and bankrolling film producer John Legend. Supported by John Debney’s complimentary score, the musical numbers range beautifully from balladic hope to celebratory prances. The actors on-screen perform their own songs while backed by movement compositions choreographed by The Greatest Showman’s Ashley Wallen. Combine these sounds with the sumptuous visuals described before and you have a dazzling presentation. 

A child’s imagination always belongs, no matter the place. Soaring higher than any fabric or falsetto are the uplifting themes of this rich fable written and directed by David E. Talbert (Almost Christmas, Baggage Claim). “Revolutionary” is the adjective it aims for and achieves. Seeing all the STEM skills and encouragement on display, some school teacher out there (OK, maybe this one) is going to love this movie and slap a “Growth Mindset” stick on it. Go right ahead, educators. A movie like this is squeaky clean and classroom-ready for repeat enjoyment and pertinent talking points. Yolk its energy and foster that creativity!

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As a middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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