There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a movie that looks stunning as it tells a bland story. If the visuals were dry, at least then I could erase the experience from my memory. Much the same, I can love a film that looks average, if not terrible. But when a movie looks as good as Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, the storytelling deficiencies are not only highlighted by contrast, but we feel like the filmmakers are trying to trick us into believing there aren’t any problems at all.
Jingle Jangle tells the story of a young inventor and toymaker, Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), who has just received a package containing the secret ingredient he needs to make his greatest toy yet – and change his family’s life forever: a sentient Matador doll named Don Juan Diego (both voiced and performance-captured by Ricky Martin).
Diego, feeling threatened that Jeronicus is going to mass produce him, convinces the inventor’s young assistant, Gustafson (Miles Barrow) to steal his master’s invention book so he can start his own toy empire. And so he does, becoming the world’s biggest toymaker.
Throughout the film we see several montages using stop-motion animation for several key transitions or to denote the passage of time. Very early on, we see the fallout from Jeronicus having his inventions stolen played out through these moments. In the same montage, we learn that his wife also dies during this period. So not only have we not seen enough of the character to become invested in him yet, we also don’t get to feel his pain because we’re seeing an action figure go through his tragedy and convey those emotions rather than the character himself.
These miniatures honestly look really good, but detract from the storytelling and, even worse, the weight of the plot. We don’t see Jeronicus harden; we only see him long after he’s become that way.
Fast-forward 30 years and Jeronicus is now played by Forest Whitaker. We’re told that after his wife died, he not only vowed to never make an invention ever again, but he’s estranged from his daughter, Jessica, who was young at the time. Now an adult, Jessica has a young daughter of her own named Journey (Madalen Mills), who is gifted with the same knack for inventing that her grandfather has, despite never having met him. We find out that Journey writes a fake letter from her grandfather apologizing to her mother, allowing Journey to stay with Jeronicus for a few days. Oh yeah, it’s also Christmastime.
Keegan-Michael Key plays the mustache-twirling older version of Gustafson, the apprentice who stole all of Jeronicus’ inventions. He’s one of two villains in our story, the other being Diego, the toy. However, there doesn’t seem to be any clarity as to what kind of villain he’s supposed to be. Is he a puppet in this grand scheme we’re supposed to sympathize with? Or is he an evil mastermind? One minute he’s laughing maniacally, the other he’s heartbroken and teary eyed as we hear a slow piano motif accompanying underneath.
As a villain, Gustafson never has any actual power that we can see. He did all of his damage 30 years ago but still struggles to find respect and success. He doesn’t pose a threat to Jeronicus anymore, nor does he ever even almost win, even though we’re maybe supposed to hate him. Half-baked and in the peripheral, Gustafson has weak motives, but what’s even worse is that Jeronicus barely even acknowledges that he exists. Our protagonist has his own problems to worry about.
Jeronicus is given until Christmas Day to come up with an “amazing invention”, otherwise the bank will repossess everything he owns. With the help of his plucky granddaughter, he tries to reconnect with the magic he lost all those years ago.
The acting is generally mediocre, other than the three established veterans, Whitaker, Key, and narrator Phylicia Rashad – reliable actors who can muster up fairly good performances no matter how poor the material.
It’s often difficult to understand what characters are saying since they speak under their breath a lot. The film almost implements a mumblecore philosophy, where it’s not the dialogue that’s necessarily important, but candid banter and visual storytelling. I’m not sure whether the original script actually contained written dialogue or just instructions that “characters should yell at one another incoherently.”
Jingle Jangle is almost entirely style over substance, but at least its intent is earnest. Writer-director David E. Talbert wants to make the audience, both young and old, feel a certain way about their own identity and individuality. However, this only leads us to believe we’ve been robbed of a message at the cost of an actual cinematic experience. Talbert manipulates us into awe with admittedly magnificent set design, energetic music, and vibrant coloring and filters, but these flashy exteriors ultimately feel like they’re overcompensating for a story that’s not quite fleshed out enough. The magic and wonder are injected into the film rather than allowed to seep out of a story where they should inherently exist.
Likewise, we hardly see any of Jeronicus’ wondrous inventions on display. This isn’t Willy Wonka’s factory where we feel like we’ve been along for the ride with Charlie Bucket. We never really feel the world around us; we can only sense the vibe it exudes, an amalgamation of several different, better, movies. Talbert focuses more on establishing the style than on building his world.
The director does something interesting in that he crafts such an impressive atmosphere that it overshadows the premise, rendering the ambience more important than the premise itself, thus making it so the film can no longer exist without it. Admittedly, what we do experience is impressive. Every image we see on screen seems to pop out at us, reminding us that 3D might just be as obsolete as we originally thought if 2D can look like this
In all honesty, the production design almost feels like a nod to Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, which isn’t an insult. They’re inventive and grand, and seem to exist within a snow globe of imagination. Yet, when the credits roll, these details are all we can remember. The stylization outweighs the story to the point where the film becomes dependent on the aesthetic whose very existence prevents the story from reaching its full potential.
The songs (all credited to Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint and John Legend) are contextually pointless, stressed so hard they take away from the story and now must desperately try to keep this film alive. The musical numbers are highlighted with kinetic dancing and electric choreography. Unfortunately the brassy, thunderously melodic instrumentals overstate the songs themselves, which almost all lack a certain catchiness in their top lines.
For a film about magic, the sentiment at any given moment is of one note. We’re either happy, or sad, or curious, but never two at the same time. The premise isn’t anything terribly original, but with a more fleshed out script, the effects-to-story ratio could have felt a lot more balanced. There’s nothing wrong with what Jingle Jangle is attempting to inspire, but this goodwill is never executed with a belief that its content can speak for itself.
As an aside, which doesn’t really affect my opinion on the film one way or another, the subtitle “A Christmas Journey” is misleading since the movie has basically nothing to do with Christmas, nor do we get taken on any sort of “Journey” whatsoever. While the story does take place around the holiday, we never would have accepted “Die Hard: A Christmas Journey” or “Batman Returns: A Christmas Journey” or even “Gremlins: A Christmas Journey”, so how is this appropriate here? I’m pretty sure the word “Christmas” was said more times in Lethal Weapon than in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.
Perhaps this tactic is only indicative of the kind of marketing that goes into a project like this. “Make it look appealing and they won’t be able tell the difference.” You should not only dislike Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, but be insulted by how dumb the producers think you are. By the way, the film currently has a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes by critics and an 81% from the audience. No comment.