“There’s a great freedom in having never done something before, says David E. Talbert, the writer and director of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. “You don’t know the rules so therefore you don’t know you’re breaking them.” It was this perspective that allowed him to create a fresh, large-scale holiday movie musical for Netflix that boasts a cast of Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Tony winner Phylicia Rashad, Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, Emmy winner Keegan-Michae Key, and newcomer Madalen Mills.
However, if you examine Talbert’s body of work, it feels like the writer-director’s whole career—or maybe his entire life—has been leading to this project. He has been a playwright for 20 years, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Wiz were his favorites growing up.
“They transported me to another world,” says Talbert of the fantasy movie musicals. “I loved the whimsy and wonder. I asked myself, ‘What would my version be?’ I knew I wanted this bigger-than-life character with a bigger-than-life name.”
Enter: Jeronicus Jangle, an inventor and the owner of a toy shop named “Jangles and Things: World of Wishes and Wonders.” The film follows Jangle and his granddaughter Journey as they “heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within” after Jangle’s apprentice steals his newest toy creation and book of invention ideas.
Yet Jingle Jangle wasn’t always aimed for the screen. With his protagonist named, Talbert began writing Jingle Jangle for the stage in 1997. At the time, he couldn’t find a path to Broadway, but perhaps it was cosmic timing, as a few years later his son was born, which eventually helped shape the vision of the Jingle Jangle that came to fruition.
“I needed a point of view of a child,” says Talbert. “I began to experience life through his eyes.” Talbert’s mindset shifted to the film medium as he was introducing his son to Caractacus Potts and company in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Talbert noticed that his son wasn’t singing along with him, instead finding interest in playing with his Legos. That’s when the epiphany hit Talbert.
“I realized there was no option of people looking like me in those musical movies when I was growing up,” says Talbert. “For him, he loves Miles Morales and Black Panther—he wants a story with someone who looks like him. I thought, if I’m feeling this way, how many families with children of color are craving musical movies with representation as well?”
Talbert knew he needed to be very intentional and deliberate about the representation in Jingle Jangle—wanting the film to serve as a reminder to viewers that enslavement is not the only narrative of Black people in 1800s America. “When we talk about the Black experience in the 1800s, there’s always a whip against our backs,” Talbert says. “That’s not the only narrative that exists. We were still kings, queens, and leaders. In Jingle Jangle, I wanted the biggest store in the town square to be owned by a Black man. I wanted my son to be able to say, ‘I’m magical.’”
This specificity went beyond casting, with Talbert working with production designer Gavin Bocquet (Star Wars) and producer Lyn Sisson-Talbert (Almost Christmas) on honoring real Black leaders in the fictional world of Cobbleton. If you look closely, the building and shop names are named after Black innovators, like Tharpe’s Music & Co. for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and J. Lewis Law in honor of the late Representative John Lewis.
This type of detail was also incorporated into character names, with Edison Latimer (played by Kieron L. Dyer) named after Lewis Howard Latimer, a Black inventor who led the creation and development of a more durable light bulb filament, but doesn’t often get his due credit.
Talbert provides plenty of other Easter eggs in his cinematic world—from Buddy 3000 looking like ET’s titular character to the Up-inspired CGI wooden toy sequences to the fire-chasing, wind tunnel escape scene reminiscent of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And while these elements in Jingle Jangle do a beautiful job of paying homage to Talbert’s inspirations, the film feels wholly original and inventive, seemingly because the freedom that Talbert described. His fearlessness and imagination led to a genre-defying musical adventure full of spectacle and spirit. At the core of all of these layers, though, Talbert says Jingle Jangle is about “a man finding his pathway to believing again with his family.”
Due to his prior experience with the holiday genre (he wrote and directed Almost Christmas), Talbert knew the key to the film’s success was that underneath any holiday shenanigans, the audience need to be rooted in emotions, reflect on their lives, and heal. For this, he tapped into the themes of heart, humanity, joy, and laughter. “The world community is invited to this,” he says. “This film is about people of color, but the themes are universal. They’re for the world audience.”
And while for the time being, audiences can relive the thrilling tale of Jeronicus Jangle on Netflix, soon they’ll get to enjoy it on a stage. “We are ramping up to put it onstage,” says Talbert. “I’m getting messages from all over the world from people celebrating this movie. I will always be a playwright at heart, so I can’t wait for it to find a home onstage.”