Disney+ has finally arrived in some parts of the world (the service launches in the Uk and Ireland on 31 March 2020), unleashing a slew of original content to complement their popular, perennial classics. Star Wars fans have plenty to look forward to with weekly episodes of The Mandalorian, and kids who love Toy Story can dig into the cute “Forky Asks a Question” shorts.
On the film side, Disney has bypassed cinemas and released Noelle straight to the streaming channel, suggesting they knew they had a hastily-wrapped dud on their hands.
Noelle is the story of Santa Claus’s daughter, played serviceably by Pitch Perfect star Anna Kendrick. Noelle is the daughter of the Kringles — the first family of Christmas — and her brother Nick Kringle (Bill Hader) is next in line to assume the role of Santa Claus.
After a brief setup, Santa is killed off – the death of one or both parents being a traditional Disney trope – and Nick begins his training to deliver peace and joy (and apparently iPads) to all the nice little boys and girls of the world. The problem is, Nick really sucks at his job, and after baring his soul to his sister, he decides to skip town to “find himself”.
The citizens of the town (comprised entirely of elves, their only distinction from regular humans being the addition of pointy ears) are justifiably miffed, ostracising Noelle and blaming her for losing Santa, so she takes it upon herself to kidnap Poppy, her elf nanny (read: indentured house slave), and embark on a quest to bring the new Santa, Nick Kringle, back to the North Pole.
Kendrick does her best with the material — obviously her role was written to capture the same charm and whimsy as Will Ferrell’s Buddy from Jon Favreau’s Christmas classic Elf — but many times I found myself more annoyed by her behaviour than genuinely charmed. It’s heavily implied that Disney was trying to create their own holiday brand of live-action Disney princess in Noelle. Even Noelle’s own nanny affectionately calls her “Princess”, so in a way, it looks as though Disney was hoping to pull off a princess film and a holiday film in one fell swoop. This gamble does not pay off.
Admittedly, I was enamoured by the breathtaking set pieces used at the start of the movie, but once Noelle and Polly leave the North Pole in favour of Phoenix, Arizona, the holiday backdrop is unceremoniously forgotten and the story just sort of meanders along the rest of the way.
There’s no real tension or stakes – there’s the obligatory ticking timeline of X days until Christmas to set things right, but no one really expresses any sense of urgency with the imposed deadline. The movie tries to build up cousin Gabe as this megalomaniac, disruptive tech-obsessed antagonist, but even that falls flat as he assumes the role with the same reluctance and reticence as Nick before him.
And that seems to be the biggest flaw with Noelle: no one seems to care. From story to characters, everyone and everything seems half-hearted in performance and execution. Kendrick breathes some life into the title role, and even Maceo Smedley brings refreshing enthusiasm as the mature, level-headed Alex, but everyone else seems to be phoning it in. Kingsley Ben-Adir is the biggest offender, but even the two starring Bills — Hader and Eichner — appear to be slumming it for a quick and easy paycheck.
And of course, no modern-era movie is complete without a shoe-horned feminist message. I appreciate Noelle’s more egalitarian interpretation of Santa, in that Santa Claus is more of an honorary title that anyone can assume regardless of sex or gender, but knowing that from the outset makes the rest of the film seem unnecessary and contrived.
Is Noelle a Good Movie for Kids?
Noelle has terrible pacing, is about half an hour too long, and by mentioning current tech from Google and Apple it has already dated itself for subsequent viewings. Indeed, the product placement is egregious, peppering in several lingering shots of various stores during the mall scenes in Arizona. Despite all that, my fiancé’s 10-year-old daughter quite enjoyed the film and genuinely adored Kendrick as Noelle. I therefore must take a step back from my adult cynicism and concede the movie does attempt (however flimsily) to preach the message of valuing the less materialistic side of Christmas.
And I actually like the idea of a female Santa. Therefore, yes, I will recommend the film, but only if you need two hours of peace to cook a holiday dinner and your children have already watched the other Christmas movies a million times. Otherwise, I consider Noelle to be a ho-ho-ho-hum effort by Disney.