The list of holiday classics released in the last century is depressingly low: Elf immediately comes to mind, Love Actually if you can stomach all the British sappiness, maybe Bad Santa for a bit of counterprogramming. Which isn’t to suggest that the yuletide season is underrepresented on screen. Even beyond the multitude of holiday movies that Hallmark and Lifetime churn out ever year, Netflix and now Disney+ are offering their own options. Disney’s Christmas offering to help kick off its streaming service is Noelle, the rare contemporary G-rated live-action film from the Mouse House. (The only expletive anyone ever utters in Noelle is “oh my garland,” which honestly doesn’t make much sense.)
To craft its wannabe holiday classic, Noelle traces some familiar plot roots. As in 2011’s (good) Arthur Christmas and 2007’s (bad) Fred Claus, the subject is the Kris Kringle family tree. Santa Claus has passed away, so his son Nick (Bill Hader) is being groomed to take over, while daughter Noelle (Anna Kendrick) remains content with pushing Christmas cheer and helping Nick in his training. The creative pedigree of Noelle just makes it more disappointing that it’s not better than it is. Besides its two often-charming leads, Julie Hagerty is also on board as Mrs. Claus, while Billy Eichner plays a tech-minded Kringle relative and Shirley MacLaine shows up as an elf. It’s also written and directed by Marc Lawrence, who has given us such solid rom-com gems as Music And Lyrics and Miss Congeniality. Unfortunately Noelle veers closer to his more recent efforts, like Did You Hear About The Morgans?
There are glimpses of something better in early scenes of Noelle trying to train her brother, with Hader effectively mugging as a reluctant Santa, lamenting his claustrophobia in chimneys and being terrified of the reindeer. He’s also not a fan of the Kringles’ Christmas-card-perfect hometown. (“I feel like I’ve been shivering my whole life.”) Inexplicably, the movie abandons their chemistry and the setting by having Nick flee to Phoenix, moving the action from the type of elaborately picturesque North Pole village those Hallmark movies could only dream of to an outdoor mall called Desert Ridge. Like Buddy The Elf before her, Noelle tries to adapt to the ways of the world as she tracks her brother, calling yoga pants “yogurt pants” and tasting sunscreen, befriending a travel agent and a private detective. She’s aided in her quest by cranky elf Polly (MacLaine) and a baby CGI reindeer named Snowflake that looks (and brays) like a goat. Meanwhile, back at “the Pole,” Gabe (Eichner) wants to add evaluation notices to the naughty-nice list and explore the possibilities of drone delivery.
As Nick has already started his own Christmas yoga class in Arizona, it seems pretty clear early on who the actual Santa is going to turn out to be. The fact that Noelle doesn’t even seem to notice that she’s gifted with skills only the real Santa is supposed to have—like understanding all languages and instantly evaluating if someone is naughty or nice—goes beyond frustrating into implausible, as if the fact that she’s not a male Kringle heir makes the whole concept of her Santa-hood too outlandish to even consider. At least the film lands on a decent message for her: that Christmas isn’t that great for everyone. Noelle learns that her detective pal is a single dad facing his first holiday season post-divorce, and visits a homeless shelter where people want much more than toys. That’s when she finally realizes that staying on the nice list can have farther-reaching ramifications than loads of presents.
To get to that message, though, we have to wade through dialogue that awkwardly describes random things as “jolly” and “naughty,” and a patriarchal system antiquated even by elf standards. It’s hard not to wince when Noelle cautions her brother, “You better not pout”; some Christmas cuteness is to be expected, but Noelle often wanders into cloying territory. A Greek chorus of carolers adds some witty musical commentary, and there’s a funny (and true) running joke of nearly every kid asking the Santas for an iPad, even though it’ll be out of date in a couple of years. But all of this doesn’t add up to the warm alchemy of a Christmas classic, or a holiday movie you’d go out of your way to watch more than once, even if it is streaming. Noelle has a few of those peppermint hot chocolate moments, but thanks to its bizarre warm-weather detour and wasting of a stellar cast, it just barely makes the nice list.