'Noelle': Film Review

A second Disney+ dud bodes poorly for the streamer's quality, but will please some kids.

Rom-com specialist Marc Lawrence envisions the day when the heir to Santa's cap (Bill Hader) goes missing and his sister (Anna Kendrick) has to find him.

Parents who perk up at learning that the first Christmas original offered by Disney+ stars Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader and was written and directed by a veteran of movies (albeit middlebrow ones) aimed at adults should lower their expectations of Noelle. Marc Lawrence's story about Santa's daughter, despite its solid cast, aims squarely at not-too-picky kids and mostly ignores parents' desire to be entertained as well. Even in the very limited category of new made-for-streaming holiday fare that reimagines Christmas mythology, it rates a very distant second after Klaus, the animated charmer by Sergio Pablos that is set to hit Netflix on Friday.

Kendrick and Hader play Noelle and Nick Kringle, children of Kris and his wife (Julie Hagerty), who doesn't seem to merit a name. For 2,000 years, generations of Kringles have been North Pole royalty, with the man of the house working all year to prepare for his Christmas Eve mission. But now old Kris has died (the Fox News headline writes itself: "Disney Enters the War on Christmas, Kills Santa"), and Nick isn't sure he's ready for the responsibility.

From childhood, Noelle hoped to grow up to play a bigger part in the family operation, but Dad, perpetuating a Yuletide patriarchy, insisted her job would be to help Nick: "Keep his Christmas spirit up," he urged her. Decades later, it doesn't matter that Noelle has the Book of Santa memorized and Nick can't even steer the sleigh. He's the one who'll do the global gift-giving, and she's to sit at home making greeting cards.

Well, maybe not. Trying to get him through the stressful weeks before his first Christmas, Noelle suggests Nick should take a weekend off, heading south to recharge his batteries. He does — and stays away, abandoning his job without even sending a letter home to explain himself. The Santa mantle goes to Kris Kringle's closest male relative, his nephew Gabe, who runs Santaland's IT department and soon starts treating Christmas as a tech startup would. (Gabe is played by Billy Eichner, whose Billy on the Street mercilessly mocked lame Hollywood product like this.) Now a North Pole pariah for her role in this mess, Noelle commandeers the sleigh and reindeer and, with her nanny Polly the Elf (Shirley MacLaine), tracks her brother to Phoenix.

Up to this point, the script has largely expected us to laugh at dialogue that witlessly rejiggers stock phrases with seasonal terms. "Oh, my God" becomes "Oh, my garland"; if you want to ask Noelle a question, she'll reply, "I'm all earmuffs." But as he sends his innocent heroine into our fallen world, Lawrence starts swiping shamelessly from Elf: Noelle is deeply offended by fake Santas on the street; tries to warn bystanders away after tasting an alcoholic cocktail that isn't the frothy dessert she expected; and licks sunscreen out of her palm, responding with exaggerated disgust. Kendrick nails the physical-comedy side of these gags, but the film's attempt to replicate Will Ferrell's fish-out-of-water voyage is a flop — as slapdash as its generic vision of North Pole decor and the cheap-looking CGI of its flying reindeer.

Hunting for Nick, Noelle gets help from private detective Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and befriends the son, Alex (Maceo Smedley), he has to share with his ex-wife. She has other encounters with harsh realities that might make people doubt the magic of Christmas, and she reacts with predictably sweet sincerity. Along the way, to Noelle's surprise, she learns that she has some of the gifts — an ability to communicate in any language, and to know by looking whether someone's naughty or nice — that go with the job of being Santa. And it's just in time, since back home, Gabe's cutting-edge algorithm has convinced him there are only 2,837 nice children in the world, and he intends to deliver their presents (iPads, mostly) by drone. Looks like somebody's going to need to save Christmas, assuming she can convince a council of elves to let a girl steer the sleigh.

This is all sappy, predictable stuff that won't offend many viewers, especially considering they didn't have to pile the kids in the car and pay to see it. But a more skeptical viewer, disappointed that he chuckled only once (and weakly) during the film, might think back to its opening scenes. He might puzzle over at least three instances where fleeting images referred to famous bits of intellectual property — a long-nosed marionette hanging just on the edge of a frame; three interlocking wreaths inlaid in a fireplace's ironwork that foreshadow an outright Mickey Mouse silhouette on the Kringle family's tile floor. Are those just little Easter eggs for the filmmakers' amusement, or is Disney making a subliminal suggestion — a wishful assertion that now, in addition to Princess Leia and Black Panther and Buzz Lightyear, the studio also owns Santa Claus?

Production company: Walt Disney Pictures
Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Hagerty, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Billy Eichner, Mace Smedley, Diana Maria Riva
Director-screenwriter: Marc Lawrence
Producer: Suzanne Todd
Executive producers: Douglas C. Merrifield, John G. Scotti
Director of photography: Russell Carpenter
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Composers: Cody Fitzgerald, Clyde Lawrence
Casting directors: Denise Chamian, Candice Elzinga

Rated G, 100 minutes