Christmas movies are, if done right, a license to print money. They’re played on a loop on TV for a month at least, they also tend to get a fair bit more slack than other films. Negativity tends to be put aside because: ‘come on, it’s Christmas!’ I myself am guilty of this from time to time.
If you can hit that sweet spot of making audiences feel all warm and fuzzy, then you’re pretty much set for life. Even if your film is divisive, it still has its place; think for example of Love Actually. It receives its fair share of hatred online, but would it really be December if it wasn’t on TV seemingly every day?
The thing with making a Christmas classic is that it can take a few years to fully embed itself in the public consciousness, it’s not always a guaranteed immediate success. That having been said, these last few years have produced a few good-to-great Christmas films.
Last year gave us both Klaus and Last Christmas. The former being a stunningly-beautiful animated folk tale, and the latter a sweet (if a bit syrupy) story of Christmas love underscored with the music of George Michael to tremendous effect.
Both of these are great examples of more modern Christmas movies that may one day be revered in the same way as say, Elf or Home Alone, to name just a few. But my mention of Klaus was not accidental, for you see it links quite nicely with this week’s subject, with them both being Netflix Original films.
As I’ve said before, I’m quite fond of Netflix, and it has produced some truly fantastic films in the past few years, even in the face of outright hostility from an industry stubbornly rooted in the past. This year, however, you can imagine Netflix is feeling a bit smug, turns out giving people the option of watching at home has been quite handy.
Jingle Jangle is the story of a master toymaker, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) whose genius ideas are stolen from him by his one-time apprentice Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key). In the aftermath of this betrayal, Jeronicus’ life starts to fall apart, and his once-thriving toy store is now a run-down pawnbroker facing bankruptcy.
It’s a classic formula that will seem familiar to many viewers, but sometimes using a well-worn framework can be a good starting point for a creative new twist; and I’d say that Jingle Jangle gets there, just about.
There’s an aspect to Christmas movies that seem almost exclusive to this sub-genre. It’s more of a feeling than anything tangible, it’s a feeling of Christmas magic. Something that would seem corny and contrived in regular films is welcomed in the winter months, we crave that warm, fuzzy feeling they give us. No matter how much we see them, their effect never weakens.
Think of the feeling you get when George Bailey returns to reality in Bedford Falls when he runs down the main street wishing a ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone and everything he sees. That feeling of warmth you feel in that moment, that’s what I mean. It’s something that is hard to achieve, and even harder to pinpoint.
I don’t think it’s something you can ever really plan for, it’s just that mystical a formula. You either have it or you don’t. You could probably just say that it’s ‘Christmas cheer’ and either I’m going soft as I age, but I love this feeling, I crave it. Maybe it’s because I don’t drink or smoke, maybe this is my fix, I’m hooked on ‘Christmas cheer’.
I can’t even really describe what it is when I chase this high, but I know that Jingle Jangle gets there in the end, even though it’s a trek to get there. You can tell that it is really trying to create Christmas whimsy, but it really is something that comes naturally as opposed to by force, and it works this out by the end with a lovely final act that will warm the cockles of your heart.
There are issues, chief amongst which for me is the music. As crazy as this sounds coming from a musical-mad guy like me, I don’t think it needed to be a musical.
The songs feel like they’re trying to exist in that cultural sweet spot The Greatest Showman existed in, but they just aren’t memorable enough to achieve this. There isn’t one tune I can hum from it, and this, to me, is the litmus test for a movie musical, whether the songs stick in your head, and these songs don’t, sadly.
There are a few nice songs, specifically Jeronicus’ ballad ‘Over and Over’ but it still isn’t a ‘This Is Me’ or a ‘From Now On’. There is a reason why I am comparing it to Greatest Showman, by the way, as it isn’t just the songs going for a similar look and sound, but the set design, costumes and choreography seem to be taking no small amount of inspiration from the 2017 mega-hit.
There is nothing wrong with being inspired by the success of course, and there are enough differences to make it not seem like a cynical cash-grab. I’d even go out on a limb and say that Jingle Jangle is a better film than The Greatest Showman, in fact. It’s more sincere, it has more heart, and it’s not as forced as Showman was. Even though some of it seems derivative of the style of that film, it arguably improves on the aspects that it failed on, it just falls short in the music department.
Setting it apart from its contemporaries further is a few stop-motion animation sections that further adds to the films mystical ambience.
I found myself really liking the characters in JJ. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Jeronicus is tender, sweet and surprisingly well-rounded. His character arc is a very familiar one, the broken man learning to love again, it takes more than a few cues from Ebenezer Scrooge, but re-tools it for a modern audience; and his authoritative presence, mixed with his obvious softer side makes the character that much more relatable.
There’s also an incredibly likeable turn from Madalen Mills, who plays Jeronicus’ granddaughter. This is her first film credit, not that you’d know it from her charming performance which I’d call the films stand-out performance, as she really ties the films main narrative together, and does so with such impressive flair for such an inexperienced actor.
The cast is strong all-round, in fact. Keegan-Michael Key plays a great confident-yet-troubled Gustafson, who is ostensibly who we’re supposed to root against but has a streak of remorse about him, driven by another character, whom I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that Gustafson isn’t the films true villain.
Although it is nowhere near perfect as a film, Jingle Jangle still hits that sweet spot of heart-warming Christmas cheer well enough to be considered a worthy entry into the Christmas films canon. It has a few characters that don’t really add much to the story, and an underwhelming song list, but it delivers a sense of magic and wonders that you look for in a movie like this with a particularly memorable final act that fulfils all of the promises of the film. A lovely dose of Christmas magic.