For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
While this fun, cheery 2020 musical film delivers a diverse cast and ample Christmas spirit, there were a few areas where it fell into old tropes and patriarchal patterns. The cast is primarily people of color, starring Forest Whitaker as Jeronicus Jangle, the “greatest inventor who ever lived,” and Keegan-Michael Key as Gustafson, his former apprentice turned rival. The Jangle inventions are part math, part magic, and part imagination.
When young Gustafson (Miles Barrow), in a moment of hurt and frustration, steals his book of inventions, young Jeronicus (Justin Cornwell) seems to lose his link to the magic. Soon after, Jeronicus’ beloved wife dies suddenly, and he also loses his love of imagination. Pained by her father’s recoil from life and invention, Jeronicus’ daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) sets out to make her way in the world alone. It is not until she has a daughter of her own, Journey (Madalen Mills), who as a deep connection to the magic, great skill with mathematics, and a big imagination, that the story truly begins. Journey goes to spend a few days with her grandfather in the hopes of being inspired and finding a place to belong. The curmudgeonly Jeronicus quickly grows fond of the young girl, and together with a small boy, Edison, who is fascinated by Jeronicus, the trio rescues the book of inventions and restores Jeronicus’ connection to the magic, his imagination, and the world around him. All pretty standard issue children’s story stuff.
What does make this film fantastic are the beautiful sets and costumes, circa late 1800s and early 1900s, the introduction of math and science into the typical story of magical ability, and, of course, the inclusive casting. While there are some white faces, all of the primary characters and most of the extras are people of color. The most talented and skilled person in the story is a Black man, the second being a young Black girl. I highly applaud the film for introducing a young girl with excellent STEM skills into a key role – and Madalen Mills does an incredible job with this role! Even when we discover (Spoiler Alert!) that the woman reading the Jangle story to her grandkids in the opening scenes is Journey Jangle (at this age played by Phylicia Rashad), we see that her deep connection to the magic has been passed down again to her own granddaughter. This willingness not only to showcase people of color as the focus of the film, but especially to shine a light on a brilliant Black girl, displays this film has a clear dedication to breaking out of Hollywood’s (and Disney’s) stranglehold on the artform.
However, the creators chose to keep more than just the costumes and contraptions relevant to the turn of the 20th century. Though the robots and gadgets that Jeronicus creates are at times more impressive than what we can make even today, the patriarchal influence on society remains evident. The main protagonist and antagonist are both men. The story includes Journey Jangle, but she remains a supporting and supportive character to Jeronicus. Her mother shows exceptional skill in assisting Jeronicus rebuild his robot, the Buddy 3000, but she is primarily portrayed as a daughter and a mother. Even Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip), who serves as the town’s postal delivery person, largely shows up as Jeronicus’ potential love interest. Jeronicus and Gustafson are characterized by the roles they have as producers – inventors – while the main female characters are first regarded in their interpersonal roles – daughter, mother, granddaughter, and widow.
Journey’s… well, journey, is particularly exciting and simultaneously frustrating. Her evident skill with magic and math sew the idea that girls can do STEM, too! She displays admirable personality traits sometimes ignored in young female characters like determination and ambition for the sake of developing great things. When she finds the Buddy 3000 robot and Edison asks, “if the professor can’t get it to work, what makes you think you can?” Journey perfectly replies, “Because there’s nothing that says I can’t.” A fantastic message for young girls everywhere!
Yet, the end of the film portrays Journey not as a magical inventor, but as a grandmother to two bright-eyed kids who have no idea that the gigantic, lit up factory at the heart of their town belongs to their family. I appreciate that Journey gets such a big role, but this element reminds the audience that it’s still pretty much a patriarchal world. The creators were only willing to go so far with this story. It brings to mind discussions of whether Black nationalism should embrace and include Black feminism or put it on the backburner for a later time (which is what has largely been done throughout history).
And the patriarchal message extends to include stereotypes of what intelligent men can look like. Jeronicus is larger than life in the beginning, but the loss of his book – his work up to that point – cripples him. It points to the deep fear of failure our patriarchal society instills in men, the supposed breadwinners. Gustafson is depicted as being similarly emasculated by his inability to make his twirling toy fly. Even young Edison, bright but clumsy, gets characterized as nervous and scared much of the time, rounding out the nerd stereotype.
Other implied messages include: don’t take the people around you for granted, the things we’re scared to say are often the things others most need to hear from us, family can always come back together, and thievery never pays off in the end.
The explicit messages of the film, however, are positive and largely what you might expect. “I’ve always worked,” declares Buddy, “I just needed someone to believe.” Belief is the magical component to the Jangles’ inventions, the message being that if you believe in yourself anything is possible. Furthermore, as Ms. Johnston reminds us, “The magic isn’t just in what you lost. It’s in what you still have.”