Long ago, as a mysterious woman (The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad) recounts to her two wide-eyed grandchildren, Professor Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell) was the most ingenious, most celebrated inventor and toymaker in the vibrant town of Cobbleton. Until that fateful day when Jeronicus' embittered young apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow) absconded with his precious book of inventions, at the behest of the inventor's latest mechanical marvel: the vain and petulant doll Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin of 'La Vida Loca' fame). Devastated by this betrayal and the subsequent loss of his beloved wife, Jeronicus turns his back on his only daughter and retreats into seclusion. Years later the now adult Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) reigns supreme as the town's wealthiest and most popular toymaker but, having long since exhausted his stolen designs, is in desperate search of something new. Meanwhile an old and jaded Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker) ekes out a humble living as a pitiful pawnbroker. Until the arrival of his granddaughter Journey (Madelen Mills), a peppy youngster with a heart full of gumption and a heedful of dreams, determined to reunite Jeronicus with her mother (Anika Noni Rose) and his own self-belief.
On the surface writer-director David E. Talbert's seasonal themed musical fantasy holds all the ingredients for a Christmas classic. Sumptuous art direction, costumes and production design combine to create a tactile, evocative pop-up steampunk wonderland. One festooned with charmingly retro-designed animated sequences and exuberant R & B inflected song-and-dance numbers. The latter courtesy of a host of talented tunesmiths including co-producer John Legend with the bulk of the score orchestrated by veteran John Debney. A stellar cast unquestionably enter into the yuletide spirit. Alongside an engaging debut for young newcomer Madelen Mills that contrasts nicely with Forest Whitaker's world-weary turn, comedian Keegan-Michael Key is especially good as an unusually faceted antagonist whose motives prove relatable and desperation palpable.
Alas, for all these positives, about a third of a way through it becomes apparent that Talbert's Christmas confection is mostly frosting. After a solid start, for all its good intentions and sincere attempts at uplifting messages, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey struggles to pull off a cohesive story. Part Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), part A Christmas Carol with bits of Toys (1992), Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), Short Circuit (1986) and even A Beautiful Mind (2001) thrown in, the narrative grows increasingly unfocused and chaotic. As a consequence the film's sporadic scenes of weighty emotional drama fall a trifle flat in spite of the cast's valiant efforts. At one point Journey sings an uplifting song about overcoming obstacles. Yet the plot arguably fails to provide with any substantial obstacles to overcome. She is bright and courageous kid, surrounded by a loving family that recognize her genius, living in a magical quasi-Victorian wonderland miraculously free of misogyny and racism. Aside from a deflated grandpa, Journey has it comparatively easy.
As pleasant as they are the musical numbers don't always gel with the narrative. Also there is too much attention allotted to superfluous supporting characters, whether it is accident-prone apprentice Edison (Kieron L. Dyer, resurrecting Steve Urkel) or besotted mail delivery woman Mrs. Johnston (Lisa Davina Philipp) with her alarmingly aggressive advances towards grieving widower Jeronicus. Conversely too little attention is paid to seemingly significant elements. Jeronicus Jangle's miracle invention the robot Buddy 2000 (voiced by Tobias Poppe), supposedly crucial to the story's outcome, has very little screen-time and even less personality. The same goes for ostensible antagonist Don Juan whose motives are too simplistic and vague. The plot is arguably heavy-handed in its condemnation of Gustafson and strangely tries to excuse that it was Jeronicus' mistreatment of his former apprentice that turned him into an adversary. Ultimately one's enjoyment of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey depends on resisting the urge to seek true depth and wonder beneath its glittering spectacle.