Is there a formula for being sensational? The answer is what lies at the heart of David E. Talbert’s holiday musical, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. This inspiring and colorful film stars Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as genius inventor Jeronicus Jangle, Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose as his gifted daughter, Jessica, and young stage vet turned screen actress, Madalen Mills as his inquisitive granddaughter, Journey.
Set in the fictional yet fanciful town of Cobbleton, Jingle Jangle follows the story of Jangle, a celebrated toymaker, who is on the cusp of his greatest toy breakthrough yet. However, his young apprentice, Gustafson (played by Keegan-Michael Key), tires of living in Jeronicus’ shadow and absconds with the blueprints to all of his inventions one Christmas Eve night. Left dejected and despondent, the theft impacts Jeronicus and the Jangles for many years, leaving their once magical toy shop, “Jangles and Things,” on the brink of bankruptcy and their family splintered. However, his tenacious granddaughter uses her wits to not only fight to repair her family but their scientific legacy.
Talbert, known for his plays like The Fabric Of A Man (2001), and Suddenly Single (2012), along with films like First Sunday (2008), Baggage Claim (2013), and Almost Christmas(2016), has been working on this project in various ways for twenty-two years. Inspired by musicals of his youth like Dreamgirls and The Wiz, he sought to make a holiday extravaganza that was representative of the world. For Talbert, the formula for sensational was time, plus distance multiplied by love. Along with his wife, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, who serves as a producer, Talbert has infused the film with music, art, and fashion from cultures around the globe making it the most unique and entertaining Christmas film ever.
His young lead, Madalen, was plucked from Broadway’s School of Rock and shines in her first feature film alongside this stellar cast. “I’m speechless,” the 11-year-old tells VIBE about her role. “It was unbelievable and such an amazing experience to be able to learn from them, just being able to watch them on set. It was just really inspiring and I’m so thankful.”
In the spirit of the Christmas season, VIBE also spoke with Talbert and cast members Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, and Ricky Martin, as well as John Legend and producer Mike Jackson to unlock the key ingredients for magical gifts and how this family of Black inventors has a special connection to a celebrated hero.
VIBE: With extraordinary toys at the center of this film, can you think of a toy from your childhood that you thought was magical?
Phylicia Rashad: I thought my skates were magical. Not only could I get on them and go anywhere that I wanted to easily, but I had a little pet duck one time. A little duckling. And I wrapped my little duckling in a blue sweater and I attached it to the skate and put a string on it. And I took the little duckling for a ride up and down the sidewalk and I thought that was pretty magical.
Anika Noni Rose: When I was two I was dancing with my dad—I don’t remember what we were dancing to or why, because he really can’t dance—but I had my feet on top of his shoes and for some reason, I don’t remember the details, he made me my own feet. He traced my feet over cardboard and laced shiny ribbon through and tied them onto my legs. And he wrote ‘Anika’s Feet’ on them and I still have them. And for me they were magical and they were special and I have no idea how it came to be what it was but I remember the moment.
Forest Whitaker: I don’t know a toy but I think I got a pair of PF Flyers. I had this idea that these PF Flyers were going to make me run really, really fast. That was kind of one of those unique gifts that made me believe in something else.
Madalen Mills: I loved Spongebob growing up so I thought my stuffed Spongebob was pretty magical.
David E. Talbert: We didn’t have that much money growing up. Working-class family, single mom. And for Christmas, my mother got me this Nike sweatsuit. I was like, “Wow, I got a Nike sweatsuit.” I got it for Christmas and wore it to school but it had Adidas stripes on the side. So somebody said, “How is that a Nike sweatsuit?” I looked at it and realized that my mother had sewn Nike onto it because we couldn’t afford it but she wanted me to have this Nike sweatsuit. I felt pretty magical. The only guy in the world to have a Nike/Adidas sweatsuit was me.
Keegan-Michael Key: I had one of those little cheap water guns that are made of the colored see-through plastic. I had a little green one. If it were a real gun it would be a .22. Or an .18. It was really small. I would put the water in the white thing in the back and pretend that the water would be anything I wanted it to be like spritz, spritz acid. Spritz, spritz ketchup. Regular water. Laser beam. That was my magic gun. Anything I wanted to come out of the gun it would be [that].
Ricky Martin: For a whole year I was hoping to get this bicycle and I got this bicycle and five days after Christmas that bicycle was stolen. And I’m still grieving this bicycle. There is some magic there because I still miss my bicycle and I’m 48 years old and this was when I was 8.
John Legend: We’re old, we don’t remember toys (laughs). The coolest thing watching [our daughter] Luna as a four-year-old interact with toys is that it’s still so much about imagination even when toys can do all these other things that are electronic and digital. It’s still so much about their sense of imagination that is outside of what’s on the screen or what the toy is actually doing. They imagine different possibilities for themselves and I think that’s what’s so cool about the film too, that it’s all about dreaming really big then going out and doing it.
In one scene, Jeronicus is opening a trunk with several labels stuck to it with cities and countries he had visited and one of them reads “Wakanda The Grand Country.” Were you aware of this homage to Black Panther?
PR: No, but David Talbert had been working on this production for twenty-two years and he put the best of everything that he knew in it. That he knows. Wakanda came along just before we went into filming, yeah? But he’d been working on this for twenty-two years and now that you’re saying this, yeah, I understand it because he never stopped creating, working, or refining. Well after you thought “Okay, it’s a wrap,” he was still thinking of things to make it even more inclusive of all the magic that we as people are.
KMK: I was not aware of that at all. I was spending too much time looking at all of the beautiful Kente cloth designs in the Victorian dresses. That’s a nice touch. But it would speak to the ingenuity. Maybe the materials from Wakanda are what’s used to make [redacted] come to life.
RM: I wasn’t aware either, but if we’re going to get half of the success of [Black Panther]—if that’s a little lucky charm—I’ll take it.
We wanted to connect the culture, the world culture. Jeronicus Jangle is a world traveler. He’s brilliant. He’s an alchemist. He’s an inventor. He’s a genius who is tapped into all of these influences around the world.
Does the spirit of invention from Wakanda permeate this film?
DT: Very much so. That film was everything. It was epic, the scope, it was grand, so I wanted to connect the great Jeronicus Jangle, who traveled all around the world, that he’s a world traveler. And not only did he go to different parts of the world, but he went to Wakanda, too. When I told them to put that sticker there I was hoping that people would see it.
JL: I think [the spirit] definitely lives in the movie and I believe there was something so powerful about the effect Black Panther had on so many young people that we want to have with our film as well. The idea that we can see ourselves in these big-budget films that are about imagination, about fantasy, about magic and seeing ourselves in control of our own destinies that we can have these kinds of films get made these days. We didn’t have a lot of that growing up. So, the idea that my kids can see that and that all of the kids of Black and Brown families around the world can see that, that’s a really powerful thing. And obviously, David is inspired by Black Panther, and all of us are, and the idea that we can make another film that hopefully can have that same power of representation, hope, possibility and seeing ourselves on screen doing amazing things I think we want to have that effect.
Forest, as a member of the Black Panther cast playing Zuri, what did you think when you saw this homage?
FW: It’s great that he did that because the scope of the Black Panther is gigantic, worldwide. I think it’s just a reminder of the potentiality of what we can do and what we have to offer as a culture and the connections that we have. And I think connecting also with this film, which has a large scope as well, a different kind of scope, and it’s letting us see ourselves in other dimensions. It’s exciting to pay homage in a way to the exciting things that it did for us.
Another scene that I found moving was the snowball fight, where you infused so much African culture with the dancing and singing. What was it like to both film and direct that scene?
FW: We were having a good time out there working together and then we separated into groups—the boys against the girls–and we started to do this dance and you just kind of fell into what you know. And that cultural expression just comes out in the dance and the music that David chose. It’s a special moment in the movie.
DT: My wife came up with the idea for the Bisa Kdei song that she had heard. We blast it through the streets…you’re deep in Europe and you would never hear this African artist blasting through this traditional European town. We wanted to connect the culture, the world culture. Jeronicus Jangle is a world traveler. He’s brilliant. He’s an alchemist. He’s an inventor. He’s a genius who is tapped into all of these influences around the world. So putting that in there is a shout out and reminder that we’re all connected in this world community.
JT: Obviously, this movie has a huge element of fantasy in it, a family vibe, and a Christmas vibe. So, a lot of what we did musically for the film embraced all of that but also rooting it in Black music as well. So, you hear elements of gospel and soul and so many of the important genres of music that form our conception of what Black music is. It’s really fun when you can play with all of those different colors…all of that put together gives you a diverse palette to paint with when you’re creating the music for this.
John, you created the original song “Make It Work,” for the film, but I read that originally it did not “work.” How did you go about “fixing” it?
JL: What’s interesting is it’s not that “Make It Work” didn’t work, it’s that we had written something with a completely different tone for that same scene and David came over to my house and we sat at the piano and he said I want something with a different energy. We completely changed the energy of that scene by creating “Make It Work.” We sat there and created the idea for “Make It Work” and then I wrote the lyrics after he left. We made it more rousing and more of an anthem, whereas before, it was a little sweeter, softer, about family and missing someone. Instead, we created something that was about motivation and energy and allowed the drummer to do what he did to help drive the momentum of the film. That change in tone really made that scene work so well.
Mike Jackson: I gotta tell you, I was there that day. And to watch David kind of throw the other song aside and tell John what he needed to happen musically for that scene, and then to watch David watch John execute this vision in literally 30 minutes was unbelievable. This kid John Legend is special, man.
Keegan, as the villain, did you relate to your character at all? Was there something about Gustavus where you said “I kind of get where he’s coming from?”
KMK: A couple of things were relevant to me. Sometimes as people we present ourselves a certain way and there is someone inside who is different and more pure. I think that I was trying to identify what the dichotomy was for him. Who is he deep down? Deep down he’s a hurt little boy. He doesn’t really have the right to be a hurt little boy, because if he had just been patient for five more minutes this would have been a different movie. But that’s what he’s holding onto because that’s what Don Juan [the matador puppet voiced by Ricky Martin] is telling him to hold onto. So I have had that situation in my life where I’m like “I really have to let this go,” a grudge against somebody or holding onto something. Why can’t I just let it go and be who I am? It was something that I could relate to. Be who you are. You don’t have to present this other person.
Lastly, who wore the green outfit better, you or the Onceler from The Lorax?
KMK: Woah, wait a minute. No. I’m telling you I wore it better. I just watched that movie recently. I think I wore it better.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey premieres November 13 on Netflix.