This is an impressive slice of holiday razzle-dazzle.
The tag line for writer/director David E. Talbert’s opulent fantasy promises that viewers will “discover a world of wishes and wonder,” and that’s an understatement. This often breathtaking blend of Alice in Wonderland, Babes in Toyland and Hugo also seems to be gunning for the seasonal crown long worn by The Wizard of Oz.
|Perky Journey (Madalen Mills), not one to be denied, insists that her grandfather
Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker) take another crack at perfecting his Buddy 3000 robot toy.
Because yes: Just as we’re getting accustomed to the production design and special-effects overload, John Debney’s orchestral underscore shifts into a Broadway-style prelude, and we realize, goodness, these folks are about to break into song.
Which they do. In addition to everything else, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey — a Netflix original — is an old-school musical, complete with a few extravagant dance numbers.
Actually, Talbert might hit us with too much of a good thing: a notion emphasized midway through this saga, when we’re introduced to an oh-so-cute little robot dubbed Buddy 3000 (and looking like he wandered in from WALL-E’s universe).
Events are related in storybook fashion, much the way Peter Falk narrated the action in The Princess Bride to grandson Fred Savage. The raconteur here is Grandmother Journey (Phylicia Rashad), who shares her childhood adventure with a pair of rapt young listeners.
First, a prologue, set in 1860 in the quaint Dickensian town of Cobbleton. Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell) is proprietor and designer of the delights found within Jangles and Things, the town’s famed toy shop. It’s chockablock with colorful, steampunk-inspired gadgets, gizmos, whachamacallits, thingamabobs and doomaflatchies, including a huge pendulum clock and a contraption called the Jangulator.
Production designer Gavin Bocquet went absolutely nuts with this eye-popping set, with its checkerboard floors, damask wallpaper and stairwell filigree; it’s impossible to take it all in.
Jeronicus uses the Jangulator to grant life to a doll-size, Spanish matador puppet dubbed Don Juan Diego (and played, via deliberately jerky motion-control, by Ricky Martin). Ah, but Don Juan is an evil little creature, and he persuades Jeronicus’ assistant, Gustafson (Miles Barrow), to set up a separate shingle and claim this miracle as his own.
Flash-forward three decades: Cobbleton’s gas lamps have yielded to electric lights, and the street’s horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by motor vehicles. Devastated by the long-ago betrayal, Jeronicus (now played by Forest Whitaker) has become an embittered hermit, his once-effervescent store reduced to a dimly lit pawnshop.
Meanwhile, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) — assisted by the crafty Don Juan — has become the town’s “genius” toymaker.
Ah, but Jeronicus’ tenacious and equally brilliant young granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), isn’t about to tolerate this sorry state of affairs. With the (not always helpful) assistance of Edison (Kieron L. Dyer), her grandfather’s devoted but accident-prone apprentice, she decides to Set Things Right.
Which proves much more difficult than she expected.
And key events and setbacks are set to show tunes (of course).
The seven songs (and five reprises) come from Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan and Michael Diskint. Although they’re lyrically well integrated into the storyline, most aren’t likely to live beyond this film. You might hum “Over and Over” for a bit, and an all-important eighth song — “Make It Work,” written by John Legend — is a solid power anthem.
Talbert doesn’t coax much in the way of actual acting from any of his cast members; most settle for simple quirks and tics, and hit-the-back-row-of-the-second-balcony gusto. Whitaker mutters, putters and flutters as the reclusive Jeronicus, who begins to show signs of life when targeted by love-starved mailwoman Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip).
Key’s Gustafson is suitably smarmy, and has a lot of fun with his character song “Magic Man G”; Martin is equally droll as the manipulative puppet-turned-puppeteer. Dyer is suitable wide-eyed and eager-beaver as the hapless Edison.
Hugh Bonneville, late of Downton Abbey, has a nice cameo as Mr. Delacroix, the banker and longtime friend who has given Jeronicus nearly 30 years to make good on his loan.
Mills, a veteran of Broadway’s School of Rock, is a genuine force of nature as Journey. She puts heart and soul into this larger-than-life role, and can belt out a song with the best.
Michael Wilkinson’s vivid, eye-popping costumes are flat-out stunning: a colorful fusion of Victorian-era silhouettes and dazzling African fabrics. Journey’s suede jacket is particularly sparkling, adorned with washers, cogs and bits ’n’ bobs from her own workshop.
Visual effects supervisor Brad Parker and his massive team were kept even busier, thanks to the wealth of whimsical, Seussian gadgets and full-blown entities such as Don Juan and Buddy 3000. I particularly love the interstitial sequences that bridge live-action events, animated in a fashion that evokes a steampunk version of clockwork figurines.
These proceedings display no sense of actual menace, and at just north of two hours the film overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes (and at least one song). That said, it’s easy to be seduced by the wealth of energy and good cheer that burst from the screen; I also can see wanting to watch a second time, to pay more attention to all the stuff taking place in the background.
Jingle Jangle is unlikely to replace The Wizard of Oz as a holiday perennial, but it should enjoy a reasonably long run.