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Writer-director David E. Talbert’s marvelous, groundbreaking musical-fantasy “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” stands to join the ranks of holiday movie classics. Smartly conceived, lovingly mounted and beautifully performed, this Victorian era-set extravaganza nearly sings out to be enjoyed as a communal, big-screen experience. Still, times being what they are, the film, which opens in limited theaters Friday, should score a massive in-home audience when it premieres next week on Netflix.
Talbert, a highly successful and prolific playwright whose filmmaking credits include “Baggage Claim” and “Almost Christmas,” reportedly envisioned “Jingle Jangle” for the stage. Twenty years later, it made its way instead to film, retaining the best of its crowd-pleasing theatrical roots while making solid use of its cinematic assets. That it stars a mainly Black cast in the kind of period, storybook-type roles traditionally filled by white actors is one of the movie’s most vital strengths.
A “Princess Bride”-style framing device finds a loving matriarch (Phylicia Rashad) reading to her wide-eyed young grandchildren (Ria Calvin, Kenyah Sandy) from a magical book. She relates the enchanting tale of Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), a.k.a. “The Greatest Inventor of All,” who owns a whimsical toy store called Jangles and Things in the quaint, imaginary town of Cobbleton. But Jeronicus falls on hard times after his hapless apprentice, Gustafson (Miles Barrow), steals his prize creation, a flamboyant mechanical puppet named Don Juan Diego (amusingly voiced by Ricky Martin), along with Jeronicus’ designs for a trove of other one-of-a-kind gadgets and contraptions.
We jump 30 years and Jangles and Things has become a dusty pawnshop that a sad, impoverished Jeronicus (now played by Forest Whitaker), long thwarted in his creative efforts, is about to lose. That is unless, as his friendly banker (Hugh Bonneville) informs him, he can produce a “revolutionary” invention by Christmas. Jeronicus starts packing his boxes.
Meanwhile, we learn Mrs. Jangle (Sharon Rose) died many years ago and Jeronicus sent away their gifted young daughter, Jessica (Diaana Babnicova), to find a better life without him. He hasn’t seen her since.
But family dynamics will change when Jessica (now Anika Noni Rose), inspired by a written invite from her estranged dad, decides to send her kind and brainy 10-year-old daughter, Journey (an endearing Madalen Mills), to visit the grandfather she’s never known, just before the holidays. After a bumpy start with the distracted, withdrawn Jeronicus, Journey and her grandpa’s eager if klutzy apprentice, Edison (Kieron Dyer), join up to revive one of Jessica and Jeronicus’ forgotten creations: a flying, talking robot called Buddy 3000 (think a more nuts-and-bolts version of E.T.) and help save Jangles and Things.
But can they stop the dastardly and desperate Gustafson (now Keegan-Michael Key), who’s been living large for decades off the inventions he swiped from Jeronicus, from claiming Buddy 3000 as his own? As the script reminds throughout, you just have to believe.
It’s a lot of story but Talbert keeps things moving swiftly, clearly and most entertainingly as he punctuates the action with a host of terrific musical numbers written by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan and Michael Diskint (plus one by John Legend, also a producer here) and exuberantly choreographed in an impressive variety of styles by Ashley Wallen. The rousing, Broadway-caliber “This Day;” the toe-tapping, awesomely staged “Magic Man G;” the soaring “Square Root of Possible” and Legend’s R&B-infused “Make It Work” (with memorable vocals by “Dreamgirls” alumnus Rose) are among the many standouts.
A death-defying race through a twisty, fiery tunnel is another highlight as are the charming bits of CGI and stop-motion animation that mark the narrative’s passage of time.
The fabulous plaid-and-stripes-heavy costumes by Michael Wilkinson employ seemingly every color in the Crayola box and deftly feature fabrics from a range of African cultures and countries. Contributions by cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, composer John Debney and production designer Gavin Bocquet — who brings the film’s steampunk sensibility to eye-popping life — are also tops. A special shout-out goes to hair and makeup designer Sharon Martin for her gorgeous and innovative all-natural Afro styling.
The cast, under Talbert’s fine guidance, is uniformly strong and engaging, placing character over caricature and rarely allowing the sweet to turn syrupy. As the town’s lovelorn mail carrier with an eye for Jeronicus, Lisa Davina Phillip delights with her nimble comic chops. And, true to a film filled with wonder, don’t be surprised by Whitaker and Key’s musical ability.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.