When a bright-eyed kid named Journey (played by Madalen Mills) swirls around her grandfather’s workshop in colorful Dickens-era clothes and sings out, “Watch me rise high above my obstacles!” you know this Christmas movie is perfectly designed to pull us out of our collective 2020 misery.
Netflix’s new holiday musical — Jingle Jangle: Christmas Journey — somehow hearkens back to all the classics — Elf, A Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — while feeling fresh and new and tapping into everything we’ve been yearning for this year: hope, representation, the triumph of good over evil, and above all else, joy. Here are just a few reasons you can’t miss it, or if you have seen, why it’s worth talking about to your friends.
We need Black joy
The story follows Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) in his fall from a promising start as the “best inventor the world has ever known” to his turn as a curmudgeonly pawnbroker. His wife is dead, his adult daughter estranged, and his dreams of greatness have been ruined by a nefarious former apprentice (Keegan-Michael Key) who stole his inventions and went on to fortune and fame.
But while the plot arc — packed with over-the-top villains (Ricky Martin is a particularly wicked robot matador) and dramatic, slo-mo escapes from danger — is sure to entertain kids of all ages, it’s the reimagining of racial demographics through a mostly Black cast and R&B-inspired music that makes Jingle Jangle such a poignant joy to behold.
How many movies have we watched where a wife and child smile admiringly at the man of the house as he achieves something wonderful? How many times have we watched scenes of Victorian hustle and bustle with horse-drawn carriages and women in huge skirts and men with monocles? But those faces and bodies have almost always been white — until now. Even the costumes of Jingle Jangle — high-Victorian to the max — are woven through with the colors and patterns of kente cloth — designs traditionally worn by royalty in parts of West Africa. Those smiles, that activity, and the community spirit are palpably joyful.
While many may watch without paying much attention to the cloth patterns, those who do might recognize this world as an imaginary representation of what could have been if the post-slavery Reconstruction Era had lasted longer than a mere 12 years. With that thought in mind, all that joy is layered with a scrim of grief.
We need representation in new holiday movies
Once the story moves beyond Jeronicus’s downfall and introduces his granddaughter, Journey, we get to see women in STEM. Just like her grandfather (and her mother, it turns out), Journey is an inventor. She sees complex math equations in the air, and while that academic focus means friends are hard to come by for her, she stays optimistic that she’s “Not the Only One” as her introductory song says.
On a visit to Jeronicus’s shop, Journey discovers a forgotten invention: a robot that looks like a cross between E.T. and Wall-E. It’s Journey’s perseverance, mechanical skills, and — guess what, the same thing that power’s Santa’s sleigh in Elf — belief, that gets the robot (it’s even named Buddy!) running again. But it’s not just Journey who has a knack for engineering, it’s her mom Jessica, who it turns out was the original inventor of Buddy. After Jessica is reunited with her grumpy old dad, they reconcile and work together to get Buddy repaired in time for Christmas morning.
All those girls — especially Black girls and girls of color — who love math, science, building stuff, and who are way braver than their nerdy male friends, will feel seen as the ladies save the day through their smarts and talent.
We need good to win over evil
The thing many of us really needed (like, really needed) this year is the downfall of the big baddie. You can think of this as COVID, Trump, or life under quarantine — Jingle Jangle delivers on that as well.
Jeronicus’s old apprentice Gustafson is a villain who craves the limelight, but without something like reality television or Twitter to help him achieve fame and fortune, he instead steals Jeronicus’ ideas, which let him win Toymaker of the Year over and over again. But when the stolen inventions run out, he tries to steal Buddy but is outwitted by young Journey. As Gustafson is dragged away by the police near the finale, Jeronicus reveals a generous side we hadn’t yet seen. Not only do we get justice, but we also get the triumph of altruism over greed.
Finally, who would have ever thought that 2020 would be a year where the post office was controversial? But Jingle Jangle even makes a hero out of this government institution. Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) is a flirtatious postal worker who not only helps save the day with some misdirection and quick driving, but she melts the heart of old Jeronicus.
As every Christmas movie should, Jingle Jangle ends with family gatherings, togetherness, and love. Which is what we’re all craving this year. The only thing the movie didn’t deliver was a vaccine. Maybe next year.