Thanks to its breezy humor and a chipper turn by Anna Kendrick, Noelle makes for a harmless (if disposable) addition to the Christmas comedy pile.
Once upon a time, live-action movies like Noelle were Disney's bread and butter. With its fish out of water setup and jokes about modern culture, it's the sort of inoffensive comedy the studio produced throughout the '90s, but with a sensibility updated for life in 2019. Times change, though, and a mid-range film like Noelle can't really compete in a market where tentpoles and cinematic "events" typically dominate. Fortunately, thanks to the newly-launched Disney+ service, Noelle has a place to go where its target audience is not only likely to find it, but also approach it with the low barrier of entry that come with straight to streaming movie releases. Thanks to its breezy humor and a chipper turn by Anna Kendrick, Noelle makes for a harmless (if disposable) addition to the Christmas comedy pile.
Noelle revolves around Kris Kringle's daughter Noelle (Kendrick) and her brother Nick (Bill Hader), who reside in the North Pole with their father (Bryan Brendle) and mother (Julie Hagerty), as well as their childhood nanny Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine). When Kris passes away, it falls to Nick to take up the job of being Santa and delivering presents to kids around the world on Christmas Eve. As Nick finds himself crumbling under the stress, Noelle recommends he take a weekend off to clear his head. However, when Nick doesn't come back, Noelle - with an unwilling assist from Polly - takes it upon herself to save the day and go searching for him in a mysterious, foreign land known as Phoenix, Arizona.
Story-wise, Noelle is basically a mashup of Elf and The Santa Clause. It's more the former than the latter, admittedly, with most of its comedy stemming from Noelle being clueless about life in the everyday world. At the same time, there's a whole Santa Clause-esque subplot about the Kringles' geeky cousin Gabriel (Billy Eichner), who's forced to serve as Santa in Nick's absence, and tries to modernize the North Pole with algorithms and online delivery services to predictably disastrous results. But what it lacks for originality, it makes up for by giving Noelle an empowering coming of age arc and telling a fresher story about a young woman discovering her true purpose in life. Thankfully, the film doesn't treat its namesake's traditional femininity as being a bad thing, either. Instead, it lets Noelle learn about herself and play the hero, all while dressing up in cutesy Christmas outfits and singing to her (adorable) CGI baby reindeer sidekick, Snowcone.
The movie's success very much rests on Kendrick's shoulders, too. Like Will Ferrell in Elf, she commits to playing Noelle with a completely straight face, even in the most ridiculous of situations. Fortunately, the ever-charming Pitch Perfect veteran is an excellent match for the role, and handles the film's wacky comedy as gracefully as she does its serious and more reflective moments. Hader and MacLaine are similarly good as the anxious Nick and Noelle's no-nonsense caretaker Polly, though the movie is very much Kendrick's and the pair end up feeling a bit underutilized by the end. That goes double for the rest of the ensemble, who spend most of their screen time either cracking Yuletide-related jokes or playing archetypes right out of a typical rom-com. Though, in spite of this and the quasi-romantic tension between Noelle and Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a private investigator and divorced father who helps her search for Nick, the film isn't actually a romantic comedy at all. So be advised, accordingly.
Overall, Noelle feels like a chip off the same block as writer-director Marc Lawrence's previous comedies, including the ones he only wrote (Miss Congeniality) and those he also helmed (Two Weeks Notice). For the same reason, however, it's probably better the film ultimately went to Disney+ than theaters. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Ant-Man) shoots the whole thing with a pleasant gleam, but that's not enough to disguise its not-so-great CGI reindeer or the movie's obvious budgetary limits. Nor, for that matter, is the script strong enough to explore the timely issues its raises (which range from broken families to homelessness and the digitization of the world) with any real depth. But at the same time, there's nothing regressive about Noelle or its inclusive portrayal of the world, and it generally thrives as the cheery, feel-good holiday romp it wants to be.
With higher priority options to choose from at launch, Noelle isn't exactly a must-watch for Disney+'s newly-minted subscribers. Nevertheless, it's a perfectly enjoyable and lightweight bit of family-friendly Christmas comedy bolstered by Kendrick's delightful performance, and squarely fits the mold of the Mouse House's modern "woke" brand of entertainment (in a good way, mind you). For that reason, those who're interested may want to keep this one in mind for December, when the winter holidays actually roll around. It might not be the next Elf, but, then again, it's (graciously) not the next Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, either.
Noelle is now streaming on Disney+. It is 100 minutes long and is rated G.
- Noelle (2019) release date: Nov 12, 2019