This original Netflix Christmas movie is a spectacular pop musical that deserves to be a cultural sensation.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG

(for some thematic elements and peril)
Released: November 13, 2020 in select theaters and on Netflix
Runtime: 126 minutes
Directed by: David E. Talbert
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Lisa Davina Phillip, Hugh Bonneville, Kieron L. Dyer, Ricky Martin, Justin Cornwell

In select theaters and streaming on Netflix.

I went in expecting cute kiddie fare. I left having experienced something somuch more than that, something bursting with creativity and joy and heart-healing emotion. It’s the best surprise I’ve had in ages.

Indeed,Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is the biggest movie surprise of 2020 – including that it’s a full-fledged musical! It’s The Greatest Showman of Christmas films, one that deserves to become a grassroots phenomenon that has theatre kids singing “Square Root of Possible” at the top of their lungs (among other songs) and posting cover videos on YouTube.

It comes in a year that desperately needed one, too. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a gift that not only impresses at every turn but, by its end and even in so many well-considered moments along the way, it renews the soul.

Coming out of nowhere to drop onto Netflix worldwide (did you know it even existed?), Jingle Jangle is a richly conceived original holiday fable. Set in the fictional town of Cobbleton (one that looks like a cross between the London of A Christmas Carol and the North Pole of Santa Village fantasies), it may beformulaic in its foundation but inspired and personal in its details. It also boasts a classic storybook look, ornate in detail and eye-popping in color and design, sets and costumes alike.

Very simple at its core (as any good fable should be), it’s the story of an old man who’s lost faith in himself and the granddaughter who helps him to regain it. Forest Whitaker is the old man, Jeronicus Jangle, a once-aspiring inventor and toymaker who’s fallen into despair and solitude following professional and personal tragedies.

Newcomer Madalen Mills is his granddaughter Journey, whom he’s never met, a child of Jeronicus’s daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose, Tony winner for Caroline, or Change) from whom he’s been estranged for decades. Journey is an indefatigable spirit, fueled by unwavering hope and cheer, with a passion and talent for invention that Jeronicus once had but lost.

What unfolds isn’t necessarily surprising – especially as its themes embrace the importance of faith, the life-saving power of belief, and the beauty of a broken family being healed and restored – but neither is it tired or predictable, enlivened by a cast that includes scene-stealer Lisa Davina Phillip, a star of British musical theatre. She is the film’s enthusiastic, sassy comic relief, playing an amorous admirer of Jernoicus whose arc is capped with a moment that’s sweet and tender.

Whitaker surprises with his singing, Phylicia Rashad serves as the framing storyteller, and Keegan-Michael Key impresses in all aspects of musical theater performance as the villain, but it’s 11-year-old Madalen Mills who’s the big discovery. What a find this girl is, an immensely gifted young talent who could no doubt command a stage just as completely as she does a screen. Everything about Jingle Jangle works, but it’s Mills who makes it work. She is amazing.

Written and directed by David E Talbert (who could teach Les Miserablesand Catshelmer Tom Hoopera thing or two about movie musicals) and with songs by a four-person team led by John Legend (who also produces), Jingle Jangle is a Broadway-worthy pop musical that, in the genre’s beautiful irony, uses spectacular artifice to authentically stir our deepest, truest feelings.

The only thing dispiriting about this exuberant crowd-pleaser is that it’s not been given the showcase platform it deserves. Yes, a global Netflix release is as wide of a reach as any movie could ask for, but being yet another indistinguishable offering from that streamer’s library often has the opposite effect, one where a good film gets lost in the digital cloud. Movie theaters help separate and elevate a film in the social psyche and cultural conversation in a way that streamers still haven’t been able to. Jingle Jangle deserves to be a sensation.

Inevitably, Jingle Jangle won’t hit everyone as deeply as it did me, but something about it really struck a chord (seeing it in an actual movie theater helped, no doubt). It ended up being the thing my heart didn’t know it needed.

Or maybe it captures what all our hearts always need: a call to innocence, purity, and faith, especially as we confront our darkest moments or, perhaps especially, when we’ve given up all hope on any possibility of redemption, reconciliation, or renewal. It crushes cynicism with earnest, tangible sincerity.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a new holiday tradition that works on our emotions in the way that the best musicals do – and the best fables and Christmas tales, too – perhaps only as they can. Indeed, this is a treasure that exemplifies the best of all three.

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