It’s hard to make a Christmas classic. Many have tried, few — especially modern filmmakers — have succeeded, and even films that generally have their hearts in the right place sometimes miss the mark. That last descriptor fits like a snug little Santa cap on Noelle, the new holiday comedy from writer/director Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality) and one of the first original features to launch on the nascent streaming service Disney+, alongside the other marquee movie title, Lady and the Tramp. With a knockout cast and a cute (if flimsy) feel-good message, Noelle is a sweet and well-intended Christmas comedy that has all the key components to make your spirits bright, but the whole is never greater than the sum of its very jolly parts.
Anna Kendrick stars as Noelle, a so-called “princess” of the North Pole; Santa’s daughter, who has always had the Christmas spirit — not to mention all the milk and cookies and well-stuffed stockings she could desire, thanks to the perks and privileges of being a Kringle in the North Pole. The Kringles are basically the upper-upper-crust elites of the society; including the specialty “Kringle discount,” access to Santa’s Helpers, and generally, the best that Christmas has to offer.
Noelle even has her own elf, Elf Polly, played by the great Shirley MacLaine with withering disinterest in Noelle’s nonsense, who is basically a servant — a strange, deeply uncomfortable and outdated dynamic that the film seems disinterested in addressing. “I’ve been out in the forest, chopping firewood, carting it on my back, so I could heat up the cottage and make your breakfast waffles while I picked up all the dirty clothes… you would starve and die if it weren’t for me.” Noelle snaps back, “That’s what you think!” Skipping down her oh-so-decked halls, but not before reminding Elf Polly, “My partridge in a pear tree underwear needs washing.”
But Noelle’s perfect life is headed for a change. After her father’s death, it’s time for her brother Nick (Bill Hader) to suit up and take the reigns as Santa, One problem. Unlike Noelle, Nick doesn’t want it. He wasn’t born with the “twinkle” and the whole Santa bit stresses him out, so when he absconds to Arizona, it’s up to Noelle to hunt down her brother and bring Santa back to the North Pole in time to save Christmas.
Noelle’s journey to the strip malls of Arizona leads her to Jake Chapman (Kingsly Ben-Adir), a Santa-approved “Nice” man who’s also a jaded private detective dealing with learning to be the best single dad he can be. That makes Christmas, which his son spends with his ex-wife’s family, a pretty bummer time for Jake, which makes Noelle finally start to understand that not everyone has her privilege, and for many, Christmas can be a dark, challenging and deeply sad time of year. Ultimately, that’s the crux of her journey, from peak privilege to awareness, and it’s honestly just not very compelling.
Ultimately, Noelle is pretty much Elf meets Enchanted; a fish-out-of-water comedy that fashions Kendrick as the Disney Princess incarnation of Christmas (speaking of fashion, her costumes can be quite something — a highlight in an otherwise noticeably flat and unfinished production value) and sets her loose in the real world. It’s a great concept, but it just doesn’t have that heart full of tinsel, and goodwill, and holiday spirit that makes for a Christmas classic.
What it does have is a laugh-out-loud performance from Kendrick, who proves herself a marksman of dialogue delivery, turning so-so jokes into genuinely funny moments with her performance. A lot of her bits are lifted almost directly from Elf, but Noelle never matches the creativity, edge, or ultimately, the heart of the film it’s so obviously pulling from. Fortunately, Kendrick’s effervescent performance pulls it out of every possible rut, from the muddled quasi-romance with Jake to the standout subplot about Kringle cousin Gabriel trying to turn the North Pole into an Amazon-style delivery hub, equipped with a Forensic Algorithmic Lateral Analysis of Latent Altruism (aka FALALA), a system that uses data to determine if children are “Naughty” or “Nice”.
It’s a not-so-subtle swipe against a major streaming and industry rival, but it’s also bizarrely, or perhaps, willfully unwilling to accept the elephant-sized mouse in the room — Disney is also a massive mega-corporation, ever-inching closer to monopoly territory, and when you dunk on corporate culture, you’re self-dunking too. Disney may not be a start-up in the modern sense, but you better believe they’ve got a bunch of Gabriels on the team cranking out the algorithms.
Noelle is a film entirely out of touch with its own messaging, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its charms. Kendrick does her best to make it an easy, breezy watch and mostly succeeds. The other standout is her totes adorbs Reindeer protege Snowcone, who makes the most adorable squeals of joy and was obviously designed to move some serious plush product before the film got shunted off to Disney+. I wonder if there’s a prototype out there, because if there is, I want it. Unfortunately, that prototype would probably look better than the finished product; a clearly unfinished CGI eyesore that looks straight outta 2002. Fortunately, Snowcone is so cute you’ll get used to it in a hurry, but it’s just one of the many ways Noelle has a lack of polish and sheen of DTV flatness that’s surprising for a film that’s meant as a marquee title in the big Disney+ launch.
If you’re looking for a light and easy bit of holiday cheer, you can get that from Noelle for sure. There’s lots of Christmasy detail work, from the candy cane gavels in the North Pole’s courts to the local lingo that makes Kendrick’s dialogue work so fun to watch (few have pulled off a deliver of “ho ho ho” so well). It’s fun and fine and you’ll probably enjoy the time you spend watching it. But it just doesn’t have the “twinkle” to make it a must-watch.
Noelle is now available on Disney+.