IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Netflix's 'Jingle Jangle' adds Black girl magic to the Christmas family film pantheon

When a rare holiday movie features Black characters, the movie is either for adults or the characters tragic. This is a gorgeous, welcome departure.
Image: Madalen Mills as Journey Jangle
Madalen Mills as Journey Jangle in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.Gareth Gatrell / Netflix

Family Christmas films have been staples in popular culture, full of whimsy, holiday cheer and hijinks, from 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life" to 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street," the cartoon heydays of the 1960s and '70s ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Year Without a Santa Claus," among others) and well into the 1990s and the 2000s with "Home Alone," "The Santa Clause" and even "Elf." But while many people across all backgrounds have been delighted by these films, David E. Talbert's "Jingle Jangle," now out on Netflix, delivers a magical winter wonderland with something different: Black faces at the center. That alone is something worth celebrating.

Christmas films that have focused on Black Americans — like "The Preacher's Wife," "This Christmas," "Almost Christmas" and "The Best Man Holiday" — have typically all been adult-centered, and children were seen briefly for moments of comedic relief. When Black children have been at the center of Christmas movies (like in 1990's "The Kid Who Loved Christmas," which was Sammy Davis Jr.'s final film appearance), their stories have featured loss and pain.

"Jingle Jangle," on the other hand, opens with the glowing face of a young Black girl gazing into a fireplace. At bedtime, her grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) opens a massive storybook titled "The Invention of Jeronicus Jangle," ushering the audience into the picturesque world of Cobbleton, where we meet a young and vibrant toymaker, Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell).

His shop, Jangle and Things, is a toy version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and, with his wife, Joanne (Sharon Rose), and daughter, Jessica (Diana Babnicova), supporting him, he's on the cusp of creating the invention of a lifetime. So focused on what's to come, he often overlooks his less talented apprentice, Gustafson (Miles Barrow) — who is desperate to prove himself to his boss.

"Jingle Jangle" has reimagined what a Christmas musical can do and what it can represent for Black girls in particular.

Flash-forward some 30 years into the future, and we find an older Jeronicus (played by Forest Whittaker), now widowered and a shell of his former self; his once-whimsical toy store has transformed into a shadowy pawnshop, riddled with debt.

Gustafson (played by Keegan-Michael Key) has become the wealthiest toymaker in the world off of Jeronicus' ideas. Bolstered by his lust for power, and because he's not quite the villainous mastermind he thinks he is, Gustafson returns to Jangle and Things hoping to pillage more of them.

And then he — and we — meet Jeronicus' granddaughter, Journey (newcomer Madalen Mills), and the crotchety toymaker's now-adult daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose).

Journey is a self-assured, whip-smart inventor who gives Jeronicus and his overeager errand boy, Edison (Kieron Dyer), a run for their money, leaning into her passions despite her naysayers. Even when her grandfather acts coldly toward her, she doesn't let that deter her from moving forward. She's never forced to play small; it never even occurs to her to try to shrink herself.

Though the child protagonist in most Christmas movies is often depicted as gullible and easily outmaneuvered by villains — at least at first — Journey is too intelligent to be taken in by Gustafson.

In "Jingle Jangle," a young Black girl reminds us all that magic may be forgotten for a time, but it's always there to be awakened.

While Hollywood has often put a spotlight on white tween girls in films like "The Parent Trap" and "13 Going on 30," Black girls are still often relegated to the sidekick roles in big family films — think "A Little Princess" — or erased altogether. Adult films like "Eve's Bayou," 2014's "Annie" and "Crooklyn" have all showcased Black girls, but they feature the adultification of these girls, as they are forced to mature quickly in these narratives, putting their girlhoods in the rearview.

As a result, Black girls have had to imagine themselves in majestic wonderlands and magical dresses through the carefree adventures of characters like Cindy Lou Who in "How The Grinch Stole Christmas." So with "Jingle Jangle," Talbert has reimagined what a Christmas musical can do and what it can represent for Black girls in particular.

Scored by John Debney and with original music by John Legend, among others, "Jingle Jangle" hits all of the right beats that are typically found in a Christmas-themed musical. Draped in bold colors and fabrics, the characters glide and move around to songs influenced by the blues, jazz and Afrobeats. There's even a moment when Gustafson emulates James Brown's iconic cape routine, falling to his knees while a massive green fur is thrown over him.

"Jingle Jangle" isn't, however, a perfect film: There are some questionable plot points, some musical numbers are better than others, and the postwoman, Ms. Johnson (Lisa Davina Phillip), will undoubtedly make you cringe as she desperately tries to woo a despondent Jeronicus.

Yet, despite these slight hiccups, it's Madalen Mills' Journey leading this adventure and awakening her grandfather to the joys of life. In "Jingle Jangle," a young Black girl reminds us all that magic may be buried and forgotten for a time, but it's always there to be awakened if you look hard enough.