Last year, and for more than four decades before that, if you’d said the words “Black Christmas movie,” a lot of people’s minds would have gone straight to Bob Clark’s sorority-house slasher flick “Black Christmas” — that’s how few holiday films Hollywood has made for and featuring African Americans. Writer-director David E. Talbert started to fix that problem with his more inclusive 2016 comedy “Almost Christmas,” but the real breakthrough is “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” an ambitious yuletide tuner the prolific stage and screen creator has had up his sleeve for decades.
Now, Netflix has made Talbert’s musical a reality — the latest bauble in the streamer’s ever-expanding Christmas-movie catalog — and though the film foregrounds Black actors in nearly all its lead live-action roles, the audience should hardly be so limited. Talbert has crafted an upbeat eyeful, set in a Dickensian toy store where steampunk gizmos with shiny brass gears whistle and whirl and all but overwhelm the senses, to say nothing of the pinwheel pleasures of all those splendid, spinning faux-Victorian costumes.
It all plays like a regional-theater production of “The Wiz” staged within the walls of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.” Talbert is positively unabashed about its too-muchness, as if trying to make up for a century of underrepresentation by stuffing everything he can into two hours’ worth of Christmas pageantry. The filmmaker’s inspiration looks to be the deliberately garish, superficially British-ish big-studio musicals of the 1960s — movies like “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Oliver!” in which upbeat ensembles sang and danced their way about the backlot.
The movie begins, in its Disney-esque way, with sitcom mom Phylicia Rashad (the erstwhile Clair Huxtable, rising above the wreckage of the now-canceled “Cosby Show”) opening a gilded storybook, from whose pages computer-animated automatons pantomime the film’s expository passages (visually, the film’s most impressive segments). What follows, we’re told, is “The Invention of Jeronicus Jangle” — the tale of how a talented tinkerer (played by Forest Whitaker for most of the movie) had his life’s work stolen from him, fell into ruin and eventually learned to believe again, thanks to the positivity of his granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills).
As inventors go, Jeronicus is so gifted that this Christmas movie has no need for Santa Claus. It boasts a workshop every bit as exciting as the apocryphal North Pole, except that here, jauntily dressed Black customers spring into movement at the first blasts of the opening song, “This Day.” Right off the top, Jeronicus unveils his most intricate creation, an astoundingly expressive Don Juan robot with a mind of its own (voiced by pop star Ricky Martin, whose lone song sounds like a watered-down version of scheming “The Lion King” anthem “Be Prepared”).
The instant Jeronicus leaves the room, Don Juan sets about “seducing” his disgruntled apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow young, Keegan-Michael Key later) into stealing his master’s plans and claiming them as his own. Thus, the inventor’s career is nearly ruined, while his former protégé goes on to become the most celebrated toymaker in the land — an injustice that spans nearly three decades and destroys the Jangle family in the process. His daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) grows estranged, and Jeronicus becomes remote and curmudgeonly, a mindframe which Whitaker can make feel quite tragic, especially when seen from Journey’s point of view.
As the eager-to-reconnect young woman, Mills is a little charmer, and the movie picks up steam when she enters the picture. Like her mother, Journey shares Jeronicus’ smarts, sketching math equations in midair and figuring out how to operate the robot that could be grandpa’s big comeback, the big-eyed Benny 3000 — a throwback to various ’80s-movie creations, from “E.T.” to “Short Circuit,” although CG is no substitute for the magic of practical effects. It’s great to see Talbert championing STEM achievements among his female characters, and even though the movie itself doesn’t seem to know the first thing about engineering (which is all about design, as far as its creators are concerned), the message comes through loud and clear: Anyone can achieve anything if she puts her mind to it.
That may seem modern, but Talbert goes old-school in the staging, especially where the musical numbers are concerned. (“Dreamgirls” editor Virginia Katz is one of three cutters credited, though this movie is nowhere near as audacious.) From the look of things, the director’s approach relied on play-it-safe coverage: shooting each song from multiple angles and piecing it together in post, as opposed to conceptualizing bold, boundary-pushing montages.
Press notes suggest that Talbert considered making “Jingle Jangle” for the stage. Digital embellishments aside, this fairly conservative production would port over well to a standard proscenium. Familiar choreography features characters stomping up and down stairs, or zipping along sliding ladders, as they sing to camera. A more spirited exception occurs during a boys-against-girls snowball fight, during which Journey and Jeronicus use a little creative physics to outwit each other.
Most of the songs follow a fairly conventional showtunes model, amped up with hip-hop and Afrobeat elements. The two catchiest numbers — Mills solo “The Square Root of Possible” and John Legend-written “Make It Work” — could fit right in on Broadway. Wouldn’t that be something? In greenlighting a Black Christmas movie, Netflix may have opened the door to so much more.