Jingle Jangle is a deeply nonsensical and absolute blast of a Hallmark movie riff that quite simply needs to be watched.
In its quest to conquer every corner of the movie market, Netflix has proved only too willing to throw large sums of money at sundry projects, from awards-ready prestige cinema and auteur passion projects to genre playgrounds and seemingly anything Adam Sandler feels like getting up to. It’s a bit surprising, then, that it took a full two years after the streaming giant’s original feature film inauguration to wade in Hallmark waters, but the marriage has since been rollicking. The November slate of treacly, low-budget Christmas offerings this year averages over one per week, and that’s before factoring in December’s glut of stocking stuffer cinema. So it was certainly no surprise when a film titled Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey popped up on Netflix’s upcoming schedule this fall, alongside titles such as Holidate, Operation Christmas Drop, and Just Another Christmas. Less predictable was that Jingle Jangle would be a musical fantasia starring Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, and Phylicia Rashad, or that, rather than adhering to a familiar template of annual, lightweight lessons in reasons for the season, it would be a gonzo mishmash of quasi-steampunk techno twaddle and oddball Dickensian spirit.
It seems unlikely that either Netflix or director David E. Talbert — a former playwright evidently now forging a career in Yuletide moviemaking, after Almost Christmas and El Camino Christmas — expected Jingle Jangle to succeed on the strength of its unhinged mania and haphazard world-building, but these are the exact things that work here. The details are downright baffling. In some unrecognizable past (bordering on a fictional creation) — where garishly-colored wardrobes apparently require bowties and flannel suit coats are all the rage, and where the line between magic and engineering is impenetrably blurred — an inventor named Jeronicus Jangle (seriously) has a groundbreaking creation (and myriad other schematics) stolen by his protégé Gustafson. What is this creation? Don Juan Diego, an automaton-cum-Ken doll filled with gears and created by some strange cocktail of sorcery, chemistry, and nonsense filtered through a Rube Goldberg contraption that ultimately deposits a drop of science juice into the figurine’s back and delivers the gift of gab and sass. (Don Juan is also voiced by Ricky Martin if the random factor wasn’t quite ratcheted up enough.) Fast-forward most of a lifetime and Jeronicus (played by Forest Whitaker in his old age) is a destitute pawn shop owner and repairman, indebted to the bank for his failure to deliver a world-changing invention — never mind that every “invention” here is a toy — and Gustafson (Key, garbed like a viscount but mustachioed like a fiend) is a famous toy-maker who has made a name for himself based on the stolen blueprints. Jeronicus’s wife is long dead, his daughter gone away, and his self-worth shattered – this final point is punctuated by a bizarre, balladic riff on Les Miserables’ ”I Dreamed a Dream” in which Whitaker defeatedly sings, “My life should have been so much more.” But when his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) comes to visit, Jeronicus’s fatalism is upset in a most cheerful fashion.
If this all sounds like standard operating procedure for a family-facing Christmas extravaganza, it isn’t. It’s tough to fully express the lunatic construction of Jingle Jangle, a film that plays like a cartoonishly Victorian-era Scrooge inversion filtered through the bonkers id of Flubber. The film opens as if fully committed to a musical mode, with three big numbers occupying the film’s first 25 minutes. But in true Jangle fashion, there is no sonic through line — the first song is a Greatest Showman-style, crowd-participation anthem; the second is a jaunty tango ditty performed by Ricky Martin’s matador doll; and the third is a run-heavy post-Motown number built on a funky bass rhythm and buttressed by layered, harmonizing backing vocals. Add to that general chaos the flip-heavy, slightly imperfect communal choreography set to bedecked storefronts and performed atop pillowy snow, and it’s honestly tough to believe anyone could be responsible for this theatrical kineticism other than Kenny Ortega. But then, for the next hour, musical interludes come sparingly and never in the form of a full song, but rather as a few lines or maybe a single verse begun and quickly forgotten. And that general topsy-turviness is fairly illustrative of nearly everything that follows the initial setup: expository scenes are acted out by animated sequences of characters made to look either like waxy dolls or polished wood carvings and set to die cut-looking backgrounds (these too are abandoned partway through); snowball fights use equations, written by fingers in the air, to inexplicably undo physical realities; financial institutions invest unlimited funds into toys, the crowning achievement of which is a flying robot with the head of Johnny 5 and the voice of Big Brother’s Zingbot; and emotionally cathartic moments include such phrases as “twirly-whirly.”
By any objective measure, it would be easy to dismiss Jingle Jangle as messy, unstructured nonsense, unable (or unwilling) to adhere to basic tenets of story construction, world-building, or even good taste. But that would be to miss the very singular pleasures of a work unbridled by such conventions. This is a film where a charismatic man full of bravado, capable of leading an entire community in celebrative dance, is almost immediately turned into a neurotic, charmless kook who delivers such brain-melters as: “You hungry? I have one egg.” It’s a film that refuses to establish or explain its irreality, instead relying on its sub-Mr. Magorium candy-colored spectacle and sheer exuberance to carry audiences through, far more of a cartoon than anything Pixar has produced this millennium. In a cinema landscape increasingly beset by rehash and reboot, Jingle Jangle is, even if constructed from familiar parts, an entirely original and liberating viewing experience and precisely what Hallmark holiday films should be: joyous, confounding, and entirely untethered from recognizable reality. Emma Roberts-starring Holidate, Netflix’s first 2020 Christmas flick, deviated from the mold only by adding a litany of fucks to a script that sought to raunchify its middlebrow model. Jingle Jangle obliterates that mold, becoming a purely confectionary creation whose striking peculiarity invalidates any qualitative assessment. It simply needs to be watched.
You can currently stream David E. Talbert’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey on Netflix.