Issue #30: By Golly, Have A Holly Jolly! 🎄
Elf + Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Well folks, we made it. It's officially December 18, just like we always knew it would be. 2020 rages on for a little while longer, but we expect the next week will feel like a winding down for all of us — if not politically, or even emotionally, than maybe just spiritually; like it or not, December holidays tend to bring with them a sort of natural resting point, if only for the two weeks when we go from Christmas to New Year's and no one can really settle into a work rhythm that works.
This newsletter represents its own sort of winding down. Not for good — we love y'all (and movies) too much for that! — but certainly for this 2020 calendar year. We're going to take the next two weeks to celebrate our own holidays, rest up, and backlog a bunch of reviews (or, heck, just watch a bunch of movies). To honor the season, we have Zosha on Elf, and Cate on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, each a cheery plunge into Christmas merriment in their own way. Happy holidays!
Zosha on Elf
Written by: David Berenbaum
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Distributed by: New Line Cinemas
*Charlie Brown choir voice* Christmas time is here! Happiness and cheer — against the odds. I (for obvious reasons, or at least reasons that will become obvious) wanted some good wholesome, honest-to-god Christmas love to round out this half of the year that Cate and I have traveled with you. So allow me, if you will, some thoughts that crossed my mind when re-watching Elf:
Listen, I am not here to be a Grinch. I love Christmas, I love it. #1 holiday, easy; I’m basic like that, and have a real Buddy the Elf attitude when it comes to the most wonderful time of the year. But I wonder, every single time a Christmas movie features an explanation for Santa: How!
Here we have Buddy the Elf, a North Pole-adjacent character, utterly bewildered by the idea that people believe parents are responsible for gifts, not Santa. But do parents not wonder who left that one random gift their kid wanted the most under the tree? I just want answers.
Some aggressively 2003 plot elements: concern about energy consumption and dwindling supply; blonde baby Zooey Deschanel (!); the raccoon scene.
I suppose some parents might not know who put some/all of those gifts under the tree; who knows, maybe it’s from Uncle Steve; what kind of kid reads a card and checks? But some must know.
I didn’t mean for this to be wild harebrained curveballs on Elf, but what the heck, it’s the end of a helluva year, so hear me out: So Zooey Deschanel sings “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and Buddy comes to join her in the duet. That means that songs canonically created around Christmas by humans have made their way up to the North Pole. Are we supposed to read Santa as a benevolent god, then, accustomed to being praised by hymns we create to praise His actions, rewarding faith without direct evidence, and seeing us when we’re sleeping, etc.? Where is JSTOR on this?
OK so I guess what I’ve basically established is that there’s some confusion about Santa, leaving half of the world to have faith, aka the set up of the Clausometer in the beginning.
To all the children reading: Santa exists, keep leaving those cookies out.
Cate has mentioned within the walls of this inbox about Will Ferrell’s spotty track record, and let me just add to that with: Ferrell comedy can skew broad and big, like a balloon stuck on a helium tank consuming all the air in the room. But boy howdy does his take on Buddy work here. Elf is, at its heart, a Ferrell vehicle — it would pretty much only work with someone as game as him in the center, able to shrug off the eyes of the real world and fully inhabit an elf-raised human. He is transcendent as Buddy, light and fluffy like whip cream, but earnest enough to make you believe in the heart of the thing.
That being said (I swear I am not a Grinch it’s just been a while since I watched Elf!): Like many an Adam Sandler vehicle, it’s kind of unclear why Jovie (Deschanel) would fall for Buddy. I certainly appreciate the classic pairing of a Lovable Goof and a Thawing Sarcasmo, but Buddy can sometimes err on the side of “childish” not just “fun-loving.”
Can we give it up for Mary Steenbergen’s character here? She is nothing but supportive of a) her husband having a long lost adult son, b) her husband’s long lost adult son’s Christmas fixation, c) the long lost son being responsible for her son (even if she thinks he has mental health issues), d) the aforementioned son’s awful cooking and questionable nutrition choices. It’s a small detail in the background of the climax, but she bought two handles of maple syrup just for the kitchen after Buddy starts staying with them, in addition to getting him a monster-size jug of syrup for Christmas! By the time James Caan tells her Santa is real she’s just like “Awww, yeah!” Truly the Blessing of Christmas Present.
I’m not trying to skew this into some heavy-handed pandemic shit, but I think it’s where we’re going (it’s where we’re always going). How else do you handle staring down the barrel of a 2021, and watching a movie with a final act like Elf, all about trusting in that childish good sense of yours?
I think the transmutability of morality in Elf is so fascinating. Like The Good Place, Elf exists within a rigid, pre-existing, binaristic moral structure that it has to grapple with. And from the jump, Elf takes a similarly soft approach: Santa tells Buddy that though his father is on the naughty list, he doesn’t have to stay there. It doesn’t matter where you are today, so long as you’re trying to be on a better list tomorrow. I’m not saying it’s radical for Elf to take this stance, but I think — like so much — in the churn of Christmas tidings and rule-abiding, we can lose sight of the fact that it’s a weird system to impose on a child, and that at the heart of it we should all be trying to be a little bit better every day. I like that Elf reminds the kid( in all of us?) that your name isn’t set in stone (or coal).
OK here comes a pandemic thought: Individuality vs. collective action. We’re all thinking it. When it comes time to get the sleigh back in the air, to juice that Clausometer, everybody plays a part, in their own way; each small bit of belief or cheer they put out feeds into a larger system. It hits different, you know?
I have distinct memories of thinking that Elf gets wobbly in the third act (which like, yeah ok) and sort of steers into this overly cheery thing. But right now, I think there’s something lovely about how cheer, good tidings of comfort and joy, take a village. It’s about people joking around, mentally coming together, and making something nice. It has always been my favorite thing about the "holiday season," that general perkiness in the air that just makes kindness blush a little longer in all of us. And maybe this year looks different, but that doesn't feel wholly gone.
See that wasn’t even that much pandemic.
I can tell you how Elf doesn’t invest a lot in the build up — how it’s strange that Buddy’s adventure in New York takes less than a week; how James Caan’s heart grows three sizes in like one scene with very little setup. But I don’t really care. Not just because it’s Christmas, but because it feels like it’s what we deserve. Buddy is full of love and Christmas joy, and so the movie is too.
This movie is legitimately funny, and thank god. What a gift to laugh. What a fucking year this 9 months has been.
Cate on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Written and Directed by: David E. Talbert
Distributed by: Netflix
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a bit of a Grinch. The cheesy sincerity of Commercial Christmas Culture™ tends to trigger my contrarian instincts so profoundly that I will generally refuse to participate in anything involving tinsel. The only Christmas music I even listen to is by RuPaul.* (*because Christmas should slap!)
So it was a bit of a shock for me to discover how much I enjoyed Netflix’s new Christmas film Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. After all, “jingle jangle” makes me think of drugs and sexy teenagers, not Santa. But this (slightly overlong) family film is very possibly destined for the Christmas canon.
The plot is a bit convoluted, as films of this type tend to be, but in the aggregate, it’s fairly simple. Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) is an inventor, renowned for his dazzling toys that bring joy to children everywhere. When his middling apprentice Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key) steals and produces his designs, Jangle loses faith in his abilities, succumbs to his crippling debt, and stops inventing entirely. When one day, his estranged daughter’s own daughter Journey (Madelen Mills) comes to stay with him, she rediscovers an old toy she helps to make new again—eventually helping her grandfather reclaim his ruined legacy.
The thing about Jingle Jangle is that its elements of sincerity and joy easily overcame its aggressive associations with Christmas. I was in tears by the first number. Not because it was sad, but because it was so full to bursting with earnest good-naturedness—the very thing that makes me a complete bitch for musicals in the first place. And Netflix clearly invested quite a bit to make this as lush and sumptuous as possible. The set pieces are grand and dazzling, with interesting things to look at in every corner of the frame. It’s the kind of film that would have been incredible to see in a movie theatre because the scale of its spectacle is tailor-made for grandeur.
And speaking of grandeur, one of the film’s more gorgeous features is the (probably digital?) puppetry it uses to narrate through time. Elaborate sets and sequences are animated on beautiful marionettes that dance across the screen in their 3D-rendered glory. The craftsmanship is gorgeous and extremely hard to tear your eyes away from.
The cast also lives up to that grandeur every step of the way. Keegan Michael-Key’s Gustafson was a particular charm, and he played the film’s hapless villain with gusto. He leans right into the “this is a children’s movie” aspect of the script, pulling faces and throwing himself into choreographed dance moves. Given that I don’t tend to enjoy him onscreen, I was quite pleased with the performance. Ricky Martin is also excellent and incredibly fun as his puppet sidekick/co-conspirator, hamming it up as only he can.
But the film’s real star was Madalen Mills, playing Journey. The pint-sized actress was a total pro, combining self-assured wit, a booming singing voice, and endless charm into a memorable performance I sincerely hope will lead to a long career. Child actors can be hit or miss, but Mills knocks it out of the park.
Praise aside, that isn’t to say that there are no flaws. Sincerely enjoyable as the music is, none of it is particularly memorable, save an “I Want” song from Journey entitled “Not The Only One” and even that, while lovely, doesn’t resonate past Mills’ solid performance. There is also not enough Anika Noni Rose for a film whose marketing relied heavily on the presence of Anika Noni Rose! The woman is a Tony winner, a Dreamgirl and the first black Disney princess! Save for one incredible vocal performance at the top of the third act, Rose is barely in the film. A CRIME!
All in all, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Music is a solid new entry into the Christmas film canon and I’m very glad I made the time to watch it despite myself. If you love family films, musicals or Christmas, this movie is tailor-made for you. I feel confident in predicting that it will become a staple in the Christmas pantheon. And honestly, after the year we’ve all had, you deserve a bit of joy.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Things I'm reading as this year draws to a close: When movies helped kill disco (though cool kids know disco never died). What those iPads mean to those dying of COVID-19, and what they should mean to us. This consideration of what Instagram means to quarantined lives. "We did the impossible thing but not the hard thing." Mermaids and the art of projectionship. And, the legacy of Tron's bio digital jazz.
Cate: Some wonderful things to close out the year—on Dolly Parton's long and meaningful career, on gossip, and how it has transformed during the pandemic, on the skill and merit of Zendaya in Euphoria, on the first of Euphoria's holiday specials, on Princess Di, Taylor Swift and our obsession with vulnerable women, and finally, the best of the worst in our year of lockdown.
Thank you all so much for taking this journey with us this year! 2020 has been long and hard, but writing these reviews for you has been a welcome bright spot. We'll be taking a much-needed break for the holidays, but we'll be hitting the ground running in the new year. We wish you all the best holiday season you can manage this year. We can't wait to see you on the other side of 2021.
Hoping the next year is better than the last,
Zosha + Cate <3