Apologies to the Fisk Jubilee Singers for appropriating a line from their world-famous gospel song from 1873. But it’s appropriate for a review of the new Christmas movie with an old school feel. JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY, written and directed by D.C. native David E. Talbert and co-produced with his wife Lyn Sission-Talbert, is an inventive musical mash-up where a steampunked Papa Geppetto meets a STEM girl Heidi, with a Black cast, set in Victorian London.
If that’s not enough to pique your interest, the film is anchored by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker who sings better than anyone ever realized, and includes Phylicia Rashad, Keegan Michael-Key, Anika Noni Rose, Hugh Bonneville, Ricky Martin, Lisa Davina Phillip and multi-talented newcomer Madalen Mills.
The plot is simple. The most famous inventor and toy maker in the world Jeronicus Jangle experiences a devastating event that depresses him so much he loses his unique imagination, belief in himself, and eventually even his beautiful family. Years later when his young granddaughter, Journey comes to visit him, his whole world changes with the joy of her positive outlook and stalwart ambition.
While Whitaker is a musical revelation, the score by John Debney, who worked on ELF (2003) and THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) is enthusiastically performed by eleven-year old Madalen Mills, who an absolute delight as Journey Jangle when she belts out the show stopping “Square Root of Possible” on the snowy ledge of her grandfather’s store front. Lisa Davina Phillips as Mrs. Johnston brings the soul with her rollicking numbers that feature Pips-like background singers. Anika Noni Rose and her beautiful voice totally infused the second half of the film with grace and beauty. Hair and costumes are eye popping, with Hair designer Sharon Miller’s authentic Victorian hairstyles and Oscar nominated costumer designer Michael Wilkinson AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) ‘Afro-Victorian’ styled outfits in Willie Wonka colors. The choreography is nonstop and includes a hilarious step battle snow ball fight.
While the pacing of the story is a bit slow in the first half of JINGLE JANGLE, the reward is a second half that sparkles with high priced CGI, the songs that better enhance the plot, and secret weapon Anika Noni Rose. But the Oscar worthy sets and hair designs are worth the two-hour running time alone. Talbert seems to direct for the stage, the sets and songs scream ‘going to Broadway’. As a result, Keegan Michael-Key as the villainous Gustafson chews the scenery and Lisa Davina Phillip’s Mrs. Johnston requited love with Jeronicus seem to come out of nowhere. But these things are no matter. JINGLE JANGLE is an unabashedly old-style production with a new Afrocentric verve that reminds film lovers of a certain age of Christmas movies watched in pajamas with home-made popcorn with Mom and Dad.
So, add JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY to the pantheon of classic Christmas movies. Where before only white characters were seen in the quintessential Dickensian London that Americans love so much, now everyone Black, Asian, Latinx, and gay can see themselves there too. And that’s old time Christmas magic that’s good enough for everyone.