From toys to tunes: Unwrapping “Jingle Jangle”
Like many of us, I spent my winter break enjoying some of my favorite Christmas films. Among them were the classics like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but a new favorite that made it to my list is the 2020 Netflix film “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” It is a heartwarming and charming tale that is equal parts magical fantasy and realism in its depiction of the complexities of family. Did I mention this film is nearly an all Black cast? Finding movies that depict wholesome Christmas, Kwanzaa or other celebrations for the Black community has been, well, difficult to say the least. Lyn Sisson-Talbert, the producer, is a Black woman and among the most notable female producers in the film industry. Her husband, David E. Talbert, wrote and was a co-creator of the film. Their collaboration creates a cinematic pulse through everything from the costume design to the cinematography.
Unlike theater productions and movie musicals such as the 2014 “Annie” or “The Wiz” (1978), where the Black leads are based on originally white characters, “Jingle Jangle” stands out because it is an original musical.
“Jingle Jangle” takes place in a society that celebrates and acknowledges Black culture. The story follows a toy inventor, Jeronicus Jangle — played by Justin Cornwell and later Forest Whitaker — and his quiet grief as he loses his livelihood to an over-ambitious apprentice, Gustafson — played by Miles Barrow and later Keegan-Michael Key — who steals his work. Gustafson becomes one of the most prominent toymakers while Jangles’ family grows incredibly estranged, with his shop on the brink of foreclosure. After the death of his wife, Jangles loses his spark. Despite plans for his daughter — played by Anika Noni Rose — to inherit the business, he pushed her away and slowly it fell apart. Years later Jessica’s 10-year-old daughter, Journey — played by Madalen Mills — makes an elaborate plan, using her spunk and brilliance to bring them together again. Through the Jangles family there is an enduring message of empowerment. Jeronicus realizes that he stopped believing in himself and his inventions, but through Journey’s story, he and the viewers are encouraged to never give up on their dreams. This message of strength and resilience is further emphasized when Journey’s plan succeeds and Jeronicus and Jessica are reunited, proving the power of love, family and never giving up on your dreams.
My experience with this film is unlike any other. It is placed in this classical period that feels like “Mary Poppins” and the costume design is a focal point of admiration. While remaining true to the Victorian-esque clothing styles, the portrayal of hair is one that I had not anticipated. Sharon Martin, make-up and hair designer, not only portrayed a celebration of natural hair but also accurate depictions of Black folks living in Victorian England. As Martin explained in an interview with Variety, “Black people and women are reclaiming their texture, and they’re proud of it, and it’s not being compromised."
Something else I find incredibly interesting about this film is that it not only presents a nuanced view of Black men as father figures but also addresses the healing that needs to take place to repair a relationship. The trope of abandonment is far too overused in film and in “Jingle Jangle,” Jessica and her father connect over their love for inventing and creating but also their love for each other. The symbolism of the pair working together to literally fix one of Jeronicas’ inventions closely parallels the fixing of their relationship.
Through the film, there is this incredible focus on mathematics, engineering, creativity and art. All of which are not only rare to see in combination with each other, but particularly with close proximity to Black folks. Period pieces or not, it is rare to find films that explore Black characters that are engaged in intellectual discourse, working as biologists, chemists or inventors, especially for Black women and girls. Films like “Hidden Figures” and “The Banker” often expose the greater idea that Black folks have made large intellectual contributions to society. “Jingle Jangle,” through the fictional lens, portrays Black families in a hyper-imaginative sense where they are a part of a revolution and have autonomy to create something that has never been thought of before.
If that is not enough to convince you to watch this film, stay for the music and the dancing. As a musical theater nerd, I can fully admit that I am biased when I say I am fully committed to seeing this film live on Broadway. From R&B and jazz to soul and afro-pop, “Jingle Jangle” has it all. We all know Anika Noni Rose is extremely talented and alongside her Forest Whitaker, but the star that lit up the screen for me was the 10-year-old Madalen Mills. She might be small, but she is unstoppable. Her delivery in “Square Root of Impossible” is equally matched to the anthem “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.” All of the songs are so catchy and inspiring. The opening number, “This Day,” is among my favorites because the lyrics capture the experience of being an ambitious dreamer and finally seeing dreams realized.
And yet another favorite, “Make it Work” — Rose’s only solo — is beautiful because it is the emotional climax. It carries so much soul and features the double meaning of making inventions and relationships work. There is another song by Anika Noni Rose that was unfortunately cut from the film but still lives in my heart, “With Love.” It is a poetic ballad that, similarly to Rose’s song in the film, longs for a relationship with her father but hopes that he can build a better one with his granddaughter, Journey. The final song on my list of favorites is “Miles and Miles,” sung by supporting character Ms. Johnston, who is played by Lisa Davina Phillip. This song is unlike the others because of the vocal riffs and evocative of gospel music. There is a trio of tenors that serve as her acapella chorus that is equally impressive.
“Jingle Jangle” is only the beginning of what Black theater has to offer and I look forward to seeing more original theater curated for Black audiences in the future. We need diversity to go beyond just showing characters of color on screen; they should be portrayed as people living their everyday lives who are informed by their identity instead of centering their race in the conversation. That wish was granted through the film and, in fact, it feels like a Christmas present in and of itself. Wrapped in a beautiful bow, Talbert’s writing and emotion meld into an irresistible celebration of storytelling.