As a child, I addictively watched Annie and The Sound Of Music every single Christmas. Their catchy ballads became the anthems of my youth, and I revelled in the escapism these movies offered me from the challenges of real life.
Over time, though, these movies – set in vast, idyllic homes and filled with porcelain skinned, blonde-haired children who didn’t look remotely like me – became almost other-worldly. They may as well have been footage from an alien planet. And it is for this reason, among others, that I grew up with a sense of displacement.
I felt like a social oddity, because I was tall and lanky, with untamed Afro hair and parents who were decidedly unlike those seen in the movies I loved so much. I felt different to everyone else, and so I became a “geek”, taking solace in homework at a time when it wasn’t cool to do so.
Fast forward to November 2020, though, and things are changing. Because Netflix has joined forces with David E. Talbert to bring us Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, the first large scale Christmas movie to feature a predominantly Black (or even just predominantly non-white) cast.
The technicolour musical begins as a wise and seemingly magical grandmother (a perfectly cast Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show fame) sits down to read a story – from an innovative CG popup book, no less – to her captivated grandchildren.
And that story, of course, is all about Mr Jangle (Forest Whitaker), an ingenious toy maker whose most precious invention is cruelly stolen by his young apprentice, Gustafson.
Not only that, but he’s stolen his precious book of mind-blowing inventions, too.
In a flash, three decades whizz by. During this time, Jangle’s turncoat apprentice, deftly played by Keegan-Michael Key, has gained fame and riches over the decades by passing off his former boss’s creations as his own.
And Jangle? Well, he’s now bitter, lonely and bankrupt. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge, he spends much of his time shuffling about in a Victorian style dressing gown and slippers, singing about his regrets and hurts. Much like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rainman, he captivates us with his intelligent yet fragmented mumblings.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are immediately drawn to this determinedly grumpy character? Because even during awkward moments of mismatched lip syncing from his charismatic and shamelessly besotted love interest, Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip), and even during the film’s weaker opening scenes, the strength of Whitaker’s acting keeps us hooked.
Things are taken up a notch (or five) when Jangle reunites with his estranged granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), and things get really good. Because, thanks to Mills’ bountiful skill and charm, the newcomer quickly proves herself a worthy and impressive co-protagonist and takes the film to new heights, complete with cool impromptu dance moves and fantastic delivery of Not The Only One and Square Root Of Possible.
The film isn’t just enjoyable to watch: it’s stunning to look at, too. And huge praise should go to hair and make-up designer Sharon Martin for her inspired, all natural and simply stunning Afro-hair styling of the cast.
It is a welcome reprieve to the generations of Black women and children, myself included, who have been inundated with the public and media dominance of chemically straightened Afro hair or weaves and wigs that imitate such. (If you don’t know, get to know and watch Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.)
Michael Williamson, too, brings us a delightful array of costumes, marked by multiple plaids and stripes that dazzle in surprisingly complementary yellows, greens, purples and reds. These fantastic African-inspired colour combinations bring a trendy rainbow revolution to typical late Victorian fashion (a letter from Jangle to his daughter is dated as 20 June 1880).
Some have dared to suggest that all of this opulence is ‘overstuffed’ or ‘excessive’. On the contrary! Jingle Jangle is a welcome breath of fresh air – and fresh, innovative, inclusive air at that.
The most treasured part of this film for me, though? Watching it with my two daughters, who have just turned three and five years old respectively and are already obsessively curious about (and thankfully, proud of) their dual ethnicity, complexions and jet black coily hair. Hair that, I’d like to point out, I’ve long had to actively make a point of heralding as fabulous, in the face of all the ridiculously long, blonde Elsa and Barbie variations the world loves to project onto them.
Both girls were transfixed throughout the entirety of Jingle Jangle. And, when Journey first appeared on screen, the youngest turned to me to announce, with a beam, that “she’s got caramel skin like us!”
Reader, my heart soared! I’m so pleased that my girls get to grow up in a world which, despite being full of Trumps and deadly viruses, is FINALLY serving up big inclusive Christmas movies. And big inclusive Christmas movies that bring the warmth and laughter that is oh so very needed right now, too!
Essentially, Jingle Jangle has all the makings of a modern-day classic. Give it a watch when you can: you won’t be disappointed.
Kemi J Williams
Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.