Chock full of musical numbers, colorful Victorian costumes, flying robots, and magical glowing calculus equations, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” has something for everyone. Directed by Christmas-movie veteran, David E. Talbert, Netflix's new big budget Christmas film follows genius inventor and toy maker Jeronichus Jangle (Forest Whitaker). Jangle has just created his greatest invention of all time, a fully sentient clockwork matador toy named Don Juan Diego. After being betrayed by his unappreciated apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key), Jangle loses the magic of invention and falls into depression. It is not until years later, when his granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills) comes to visit, that he rediscovers the magic of invention.
With its period setting, the movie adheres to a popular Anglo-American Christmas aesthetic, based on a murky nostalgia for the Victorian period (think “A Christmas Carol,” or “The Nutcracker,” or even just the tradition of Christmas carollers in long dresses demanding figgy pudding). However, “Jingle Jangle” enriches this otherwise heavily white tradition, featuring a predominantly Black cast and references to Ghanian culture through the use of afro-beat-heavy Christmas music and costumes that designer Michael Wilkinson refers to as “afro-victorian.”
Jingle Jangle’s cast of characters is charming, quirky, and uplifting. A notable example is young, bright would-be inventor Journey Jangle, played brilliantly by Madelen Mills. Journey can't just belt out a tune — she also loves math and is amazing at it. In fact, Talbert’s playful portrayal of math is one of the great successes of the film. Along with her Grandpa and friend Edison, Journey takes the square root of “possible” and finds the derivative of “spectacular,” all while using magic to mark her calculations. It's easy to imagine a young girl watching this movie and being excited about becoming a mathematician or an inventor, just like Journey.
The amount of love that has been poured into this film is clear — and so is the money. Everything from the costumes to CGI robots and toys are stunning and visually engaging. With its opulent sets, costumes, and special effects, the movie builds a world of endless whimsy, adventure, and discovery.
The almost steampunk CGI aesthetic in the film is generally gorgeous, and Diego’s design is no exception. However, the minute the tiny matador robot begins to speak and move, his slightly-humanoid, slightly-robotic gestures make him appear incredibly off putting. To be fair, though, uncanny valley animation is a hallmark of Christmas films (see “The Polar Express”), so perhaps this is just an extension of that trope.
In addition to being just a little scary, Diego’s very existence raises important questions about the power Jeronichus Jangle is capable of wielding. Diego is sentient and seems to possess free will; his main motivation in the film is his desire to avoid being “mass produced” and sold to children as a toy. Unwittingly, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” raises several haunting questions about the border between technology and humanity. Why is it that this toy is denied the right to self-determination? If Diego is capable of thinking and feeling things, why is he not considered human?
Existential questions and plot holes aside, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is a lot of fun and a refreshing addition to the Christmas movie cannon, marking, hopefully just the beginning of Netflix’s increased investment in BIPOC voices and stories.