By Leah Greenblatt
November 11, 2020 at 07:00 PM EST
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Credit: Gareth Gatrell/NETFLIX

Like clockwork every year, the seasonal content comes: a post-Halloween deluge of aggressively festive holiday cheer. Most of it, rightfully, tends to fade by Boxing Day; the scarce standouts — books, movies, Mariah Carey songs — strong enough to become part of the annual canon can usually be counted on less than one hand.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (in select theaters this month and on Netflix Nov. 13) feels like the rare kind that actually might: a sprawling musical extravaganza whose candy-colored, dandily overstuffed revelry spills over with joy and jubilance and every other happy J-word. (And whose vibrant cast shines a bright light of diversity on decades of depressingly monochrome holiday moviemaking.)

The plot, framed as a cozy 19th-century bedtime story by narrator Phylicia Rashad, lands firmly in the classic once-upon-a-time camp: Jeronicus Jangle (played briefly by Justin Cornwell, and then by Forest Whitaker) is "the greatest inventor in all the land," blessed with a bustling toy shop and a beautiful family. He's even conjured a tiny toreador, Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin) who speaks and sings and twirls on his own — and schemes, too, whispering to Jeronicus' impatient young assistant, Gustafson (Miles Barrow), that all that wonder could be his to claim, if he "indefinitely borrows" his boss' treasured book of inventions.

His theft in the night brings the grown Gustafson (a top-hatted, showboating Keegan-Michael Key) success beyond his wildest dreams, but the loss leaves Jeronicus more than bankrupt; he's become a broken man, estranged from his grown daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose), and hopelessly bereft of new ideas. When she sends her own daughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), to meet him for the first time, her visit coincides with the end of the line for his once-prosperous shop; by Christmas Day, a sympathetic banker (Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville) tells him, the place will be repossessed if he can't come up with back rent.

Jangle is not the kind of movie to make you remotely doubt the outcome, and writer-director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim) throws pretty much every kitchen-sink Christmas notion at the script, filling the furthest corners of the screen with song and dance and tireless Yuletide energy. The magic, for the most part, is in the execution — not least the brilliant costumes by Michael Wilkinson (Aladdin, American Hustle), pixie-dusted production design (courtesy of Star Wars stalwart Gavin Bocquet), and soaring musical numbers (penned by John Legend, among others).

But it's also in the message — one that manages to champion hope and equality and inclusion without feeling blandly lecture-y. (For all its enchantment, the movie also makes a solid case, incidentally, for the very real benefits of math and science, and puts great faith in the big brains of even the smallest girls and boys.) In a year short on so many of those things, Jangle feels like finding something sweetly familiar but also new, finally, under the tree. Grade: B+

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