Jingle Jangle, Forest Whitaker's film on Netflix, is a welcome reprieve from the solemnity of science and solitude
Jingle Jangle is a palate cleanser from not only the year that 2020 has been, but also the saturation of white obsession with Christmas.
Festive films are escapist fare that would in other years find few takers. They appeal to basest form of optimism, in an age where holding on to pessimism is more chic, even trendy. Because it is easier to be alarmist than a pacifist. In a year like 2020, however, some formative festive cheer is what we will be okay to suspect our cinema of.
Written and directed by David E Talbert, Jingle Jangle follows some formulas while abandoning others in the service of some welcome escapist gaiety. If 2020 were a tunnel, Jingle Jangle would be the kind of end you would wish to find, the undimming glow of its romanticism, dense enough to not be bogged down by the clutter of its myriad moving pieces.
Jingle Jangle is the story of Jeronicus Jangle, played with typical sobriety for the most part of the film by Forest Whitaker. A technical wizard, Jangle is gifted with the ability to imagine and visualise the most innovative toys the land has ever seen. The passable science notwithstanding, Jangles presented as a genius bar none. His credibility feathered by the fact that he relishes his success, his ability in the lap of his family. Jangles also employs an envious protégé in Gustafson (Keegan- Michael Key), with an adorable little moustache and the kind of wide-eyed gaunt that Key carries with ease. Angered by the lack of attention his master gives him, Gustafson steals Jangle’s book of his greatest ideas, in the process robbing him of both confidence and self-worth. Jangle grows old, his once famed toy store running out of business when his granddaughter returns, and attempts to reprise the inventor in him. Gustafson remains a nefarious presence in their lives, ready to loot everything Jangle’s worn mind can produce.
The film prefers the Mary Poppins style of the musical, populating the screen with gyrating dancers at every opportunity it gets. The festive season may be at the heart of the film, but so confident is Talbert’s image of his protagonist that he does not even require the presence of a Santa Claus. Imagination, instead takes over, with the rather progressive coded in, that festivity is at the end of the day, the mind’s leap of faith. The necessity to ‘believe’ precedes the necessity to ‘create. That his genius lies in believing in the impossible, may well be his greatest gift, is a lesson Jangle learns gradually, courtesy his granddaughter, played vibrantly by the excellent Madalen Mills.
Talbert’s film, initially intentioned for the stage, reinvents the wheel in some aspects. It is the first festive musical to be led entirely by a cast of African American actors. The accordance of genius to a black man is a welcome change from the erasure that history itself can be deemed guilty of.
Moreover, the costuming, music, and tone peppered with Afrobeat and a distinctly African American baritone, significantly contributes to the freshness of this otherwise old-school narrative.
Both Whitaker and Key complement each other perfectly. Whitaker essays quiet resignation and lack of self-belief in an assured performance that touches some cornerstones of mental health as well. Key, on the other hand, is wonderfully mischievous, balancing his colourful villainy with enough self-doubt that a festive format would permit.
Netflix’s own Been So Long (2018) was a welcome recreation of the typical white musical about a pair falling in love. It is incredible really the extent to which African American culture has been appropriated by musicals for the screen, without assigning either credit or representation. Damian Chazzelle’s La La Land (2016), for example, was nominated for 14 Oscars, and widely criticised at the same time, for affording no space for the African American community whose history of jazz and gender, it crassly wrote over and above. It points to the way both filmmakers and the audience can often mistake race as a product of genre, rather than the other way round. The history of jazz has, for example, been appropriated to the extent that its popular notional history must almost seem devoid of black participation altogether.
Jingle Jangle is not exactly path-breaking because while it replaces some moving parts, it does not exactly reengineer the machine of the musical.
The film is certainly more mature than some of its ancestors. In Whitaker and Key, it has two stellar actors tugging the rope on each side in a battle we know can go only one way. The Christmas vibe is stoked and sutured adeptly to the fabric of the film despite its seemingly brave choice to not obsess about the festival at all. For the needle of history, that Jingle Jangle manages to push towards African American community, the film deserves its fair share of admiration. And given the kind of year it has come out in, it offers a welcome reprieve from the seriousness of both science and solitude. It revels in abandoning the humane instinct of rationalising, and in it lies both escape and entertainment.
Jingle Jangle is streaming on Netflix.
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