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Non-Review Review: Jingle Jangle – A Christmas Journey

The big question with Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is simple: what do audiences want from a Christmas film?

Jingle Jangle exists in the context of Netflix’s recent efforts to build a sturdy collection of modern holiday cinema, from the classic animation of Klaus to the adventure of The Christmas Chronicles to the formula of A Christmas Prince. These are clearly part of an effort to buttress the streaming service’s library with a collection of films that audiences can enjoy in the holiday season. Jingle Jangle marks the latest glitzy addition to that selection, starring Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker and produced by Oscar-winner John Legend.

The Greatest Snowman.

Jingle Jangle is a fine execution of the standard Christmas movie formula. There are songs. There are children. There is a framing device involving a story that appears to blend fantasy and reality. There is lavish production design. There are morals about the importance of family. There are ominous deadlines that count down very specifically to Christmas. There are toys. There is missletoe. There is an improbably (and yet also inescapably) happy ending. There are also no surprises waiting beneath this lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

Then again, maybe that is the point. Maybe people don’t want surprises at Christmas, but instead the warm comfort of familiarity.

Going by the book.

It seems fair to observe that Netflix’s output varies wildly in terms of quality. For every Mank, there is a Hillbilly Elegy. For every Roma, there is a Mute. There’s also a lot of fairly generic material on there, films like Triple Frontier, The Old Guard and Extraction. However, it should be noted that these kinds of films tend to do relatively well on the streaming service. Extraction was reportedly Netflix’s most watched film ever, suggesting that there is a clear market for films that are largely conventional and familiar.

This might explain why Netflix’s big push to conquer Christmas seems to have worked out relatively well for the streaming service. While the company has yet to produce a perennial seasonal classic like It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard, or even an especially large festive breakout, Netflix’s Christmas content manages to generally be “good” for a very specific value of “good.” The films tend to scratch a very particular itch, and deliver exactly what audiences expect: reliable, sentimental, feel-good cheer.

Jingle all the way?

As such, a lot of the more common problems with these sorts of Netflix Originals are smoothed over when making movies like Jingle Jangle. Like a lot of films produced by the streamer, Jingle Jangle feels somewhat derivative. The big show stopping musical numbers in period costume most directly evoke that recent Christmas musical smash The Greatest Showman. The idea of disillusionment at a toy store is a well-worn Christmas trope, covering everything from Mister Magorium’s Wonder Emporium to shades of Last Christmas.

However, even outside of specific references, a lot of the tropes of Jingle Jangle feels formulaic and predictable. Early in the film, a banker shows up to warn toy store owner Jeronicus Jangle that the bank is considering calling in his debt. “Either come up with the money you owe by Christmas,” the banker warns, “or show me the revolutionary invention you once promised.” Jangle gasps, “That’s days away!” (Naturally, that same banker inevitably learns the true meaning of Christmas in one of the movie’s more concise – yet still entirely conventional – festive arcs.)

He’ll plagiarise to the occasion.

Indeed, the film focuses on a toymaker who finds a way to bring his creations to life, only to have his young apprentice steal that invention out from under him. That apprentice-turned rival is named “Gustafson”, which often sounds like a weird portmanteau of “Gaston” and “Mustafa.” (he is handily dressed in shades of green.) There are strong Disney vibes here; the lonely old toymaker recalls the presentation of Geppetto in Pinocchio, while Anika Noni Rose from The Princess and the Frog has a small role, and John Debney works on the soundtrack.

There are no shocking or unsettling developments in Jingle Jangle. At one point, after an explosive set piece, one of the young children in the cast is called home for supper and effectively excuses himself from the remainder of the movie. The closest thing that the movie has to a big twist is easily deducible by anybody who has ever seen a film before, even before any of the characters are introduced. Naturally, the older version of Jangle is introduced as a curmudgeon, but he will eventually learn to embrace life (and the people around him) again.

What’s in store?

In most movies, this predictably with be a more serious problem. However, watching Jingle Jangle, these conventions become comforts. There is a sense in which Jingle Jangle is completely disinterested in challenging or surprising its audience. Instead, it plans to give them exactly what they expect. It’s perhaps forgivable in the context of a big, friendly, colourful Christmas movie. After all, what more do audiences expect?

And yet, there are still some unfortunate problems. As fun as the movie can be, it ultimately lacks the depth that defines the best and most successful family films. To pick an obvious example, the plot is instigated when Jangle animates a toy named Don Juan Diego. Diego stutters to life, embracing all of its potential. However, he is horrified to discover that Jangle plans to mass produce models of him so that every child on the planet might have their own sentient figurine.

The must-have self-aware collectible of the season!

Diego is horrified, claiming to be “one – and only of a kind.” He is so horrified that he inspires Gustafson to betray Jangle. The way that Jingle Jangle approaches Diego is fascinating, because it takes his lack of personhood and agency as read. Gustafson is villainous, but worthy of sympathy. It remains clear that Jangle harbours some lingering affection for his former student, particularly in their final scene together. However, Diego is presented as a monstrous threat to the established order that needs to be stopped and dismantled.

Jingle Jangle never pauses to consider that Diego might possibly have a point, that it might be vaguely monstrous to create an army of exact replicas of him so that they can presumably be sold to a generation of children. Given how much emphasis Jingle Jangle places on Jangle’s imagination and wonder, it seems like mass-producing copies of Diego would be a grotesque violation of his selfhood. Instead, Diego is presented as a monstrous fiend for even daring to question the rigourous capitalist underpinnings of Christmas.  It is surprisingly unsettling, despite the movie’s charm.

“I am Iron Man!”

Similarly, Jingle Jangle suffers slightly from the dreaded Netflix bloat. The film clearly aspires to be a festive confection, and it layers itself on a little too heavily at points. Notably, the film runs about twenty minutes before Forrest Whittaker takes over the role of Jangle, another ten minutes before the crucial character of Journey is introduced and about ten more before Keegan-Michael Key takes over the role as an adult Gustafson. That is a lot of prologue and mythology for a story that doesn’t really need it.

There are also moments where Jingle Jangle feels a little bit too calculated and too designed. This is most notable in the sequence that depict Jangle and his granddaughter Journey thinking. It is very hard to visualise the process of mentally designing complex constructs and working through mathematical formulae, but Jingle Jangle resorts to the stock orange and blue imagery employed by comic book movies like Doctor Strange and Iron Man.

Strange apparitions…

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in Jingle Jangle. As predictable as the movie is, it hits most of its marks. The film has incredible production design by Gavin Bocquet, who brings the same sort of otherworldly charm that informed his work on the Star Wars prequels and Stardust, along with The Dark Crystal. Similarly, Michael Wilkinson’s costume design is beautiful, full of rich fabrics and vibrant colours that look like something from a fairy tale. Jingle Jangle looks and feels a lot like the sort of sugar rush one expects in the festive season, to its credit.

The film employs some impressive computer-generated imagery, as well as some striking stop-motion puppetry in various bridging sequences. This steampunk imagery lends some magic to proceedings. The result of this approach is to create something that feels unreal in a way that befits the holiday in question. Jingle Jangle is a bright and vibrant piece of holiday fluff, and even its excesses occasionally feel in keeping with the spirit of the season.

The Man Who Almost Invented Christmas…

More than that, the film’s soundtrack is strangely charming. In terms of design and appearance, The Greatest Showman appears to have been a key influence here, which makes sense given the film’s slow burn success. In its own way, released opposite Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, The Greatest Showman is a Christmas movie of a sort. Much of the music in the film is decidedly theatrical. (A recurring gag focuses on the three singers and dancers who comprise a chorus, with Jangle even noticing how incongruous they appear. “Background dancers?” he asks.)

However, there’s more to it than that. While Jingle Jangle eschews the modern electro pop that defines so many children’s films in favour of grand musical arrangements, the film also makes point to draw from traditions of jazz, blues and mo town. The soundtrack features songs written by John Legend and Philip Lawrence, complimenting the action well. The narrative is framed as “a new story”, and while the actual plot itself is entirely conventional and straightforward, there is something to be said for the film’s emphasis on black voices and talent.

Christmas appeal.

Jingle Jangle is not an exceptionally imaginative creation. It does not feel as wondrous and unique as a creation from the workshop of Jeronicus Jangle. If anything, it’s closer to the mass-produced confections of Gustafson with just enough style and charm to steady it in a way that Gustafson’s own inventions never manage. The result is light, fun, goofy and disposable. It lands perfectly in the sweet spot for a very particular kind of Christmas movie.

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