Like a gorgeously decorated tree with a few too many presents stuffed under it, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is excessive but never unwelcome. An ambitious original musical packed to the gills with visual delights, it’s the kind of Christmas movie that can charm adults into looking past its flaws while turning delighted children into lifelong fans.
On the heels of his charming ensemble comedy “Almost Christmas,” writer-director David E. Talbert fearlessly marries whimsy and steampunk, sentimentality and science fiction, with big musical numbers composed by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan and Michael Diskint, plus one from John Legend (who executive produced the film). That this big, bright Netflix extravaganza features a principally Black cast is not insignificant in the history of cinema, particularly in the history of large-scale family musicals and of Christmas movies.
We open with a grandmother played by Phylicia Rashad, reading a Christmas story to her grandchildren from an extraordinary book, filled with cogs and gears that come to life with pop-up, three-dimensional figures. (This gorgeous CG animation will turn up throughout the film to illustrate the passage of the years.)
Once upon a time, a brilliant inventor and toymaker named Jeronicus Jangle had a great discovery, bringing a tin toy — a matador named Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin) — to walking, talking life. Jeronicus plans to mass-produce the toy, but the vain Don Juan, refusing to be anything but unique, instead talks Jeronicus’ impatient apprentice Gustafson into running away with him and stealing Jeronicus’ book of inventions. Jeronicus loses everything while Gustafson, using Jeronicus’ ideas, becomes a master toymaker.
Decades later, Jeronicus’ estranged daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose), receives a letter from her father (now played by Forest Whitaker) inviting Jessica’s daughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), to come visit. And wouldn’t you know it: Just when Journey and Jeronicus’ young assistant, Edison (Kieron L. Dyer), figure out how to bring to life the Buddy 3000 robot (voiced by Tobias Poppe) — an old creation of Jessica’s — Gustafson (now played by Keegan-Michael Key) is sniffing around for a new invention to steal, having used up everything that was in Jeronicus’ book.
There’s a lot more in the mix, from a Christmas Day deadline laid down by banker Mr. Delacroix (Hugh Bonneville) to mail carrier Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) and her crush on the widowed Jeronicus to a subplot about the power of belief in others and in oneself, all of which pack the movie to the gills. What would have been another movie’s big climactic set piece takes place with about 30 minutes to go, and Journey gets two “I wish” songs, when one would have sufficed.
But if “Jingle Jangle” is overloaded, it boasts ebullient choreography by Ashley Wallen (“The Greatest Showman”), vibrant plaids and patterns created by costumer Michael Wilkinson (“The Gentlemen”) and a steampunk-fantasia production design from Gavin Bocquet (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”). This is a film that not only has the potential of becoming a holiday staple, but promises to create a whole new category of colorful cosplay.
Talbert has assembled an extraordinary ensemble who find the small, recognizable moments in this larger-than-life fantasy. Whitaker gets to undergo an almost Scrooge-like re-emergence into humanity, and young performers Mills and Dyer never veer into the excessively cute. The real revelation here is Key, who exults in his big production number, “Magic Man G,” with the relish of a performer who’s been impatiently awaiting his moment to shine.
Because of Key’s jubilance, that’s the song that pops most on the first viewing, but the opening number “This Day,” “Miles and Miles” and “Make It Work” (Legend’s contribution) all have the potential to sneak up on listeners after multiple viewings. Unlike many Christmas musicals, the songs aren’t specifically skewed to the holiday, but to the film’s themes of redemption, family reconciliation, forgiveness and self-discovery.
You can sense the sources that have inspired Talbert, from “Short Circuit” robot Johnny 5 on the design of Buddy 3000 to fleeting notes of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “E.T.,” “Scrooge” (1970) and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” but the results feel very much like their own creation. There are moments, particularly in the last half hour, when Talbot and his team might have scaled back a bit. But if we can’t forgive a little excess at Christmastime, when can we?