‘Noelle’ — Review
A spunky central performance from Anna Kendrick and a sense of holiday cheer elevates this predictable and derivative Christmas flick.
I’m always very conflicted about the Christmas season. I enjoy the decorations, the warm feeling of family gatherings, and peppermint mochas. The seasonal stress and depression? The short days and long nights? The mindless consumerism? I could definitely live without. So when a Christmas movie critiques Christmas tradition as much as it celebrates it, I appreciate it. I didn’t expect to appreciate Noelle in that sense, but the Disney+ film does have something to say about the holiday season. It’s a cutesie, feel-good holiday film with a goofy central performance, but it also grapples — to decent effect — with the idea that the best presents aren’t bought in a store.
The film centers around Santa’s daughter Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick) in the months after his death. Her older brother Nick (Bill Hader), has been groomed from a young age to take on the mantle of Santa Claus, but he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. Noelle, on the other hand, is a bucket of holiday cheer, delegated to keeping her brother’s Christmas spirit up. After a particularly rough day of Santa training, Noelle suggests that Nick take the weekend off to de-stress, and he takes her up on it. Only, Nick doesn’t come back, and it’s up to Noelle to find him and save Christmas.
This is the setup for the fish-out-of-water story that takes up a majority of the film’s runtime. It’s hard not to notice the striking similarities to Elf (2003) in both the situations and in Anna Kendrick’s performance. She’s not as over the top as Will Ferrell, but she shines in the lead role. Kendrick’s naturally bubbly personality make her a perfect fit for the jolly Noelle; most of the comedy works simply because she’s delivering it. She also has a natural chemistry with all of her costars, particularly Bill Hader and Shirley MacLaine, who get the lion’s share of screentime with her. It’s hard to find a better actor to center a bubbly Christmas comedy around than Anna Kendrick.
The film elicits quite a few laughs and chuckles, though I would be lying if most of the humor was very clever. The jokes fall closer to goofy on the humor spectrum, but even goofy humor has its place. Anna Kendrick eating sunblock isn’t high art by any means, but the actress delivers the material with such enthusiasm that it’s hard not to laugh. Noelle’s relentless cheer serves as an excellent foil to Bill Hader’s apathetic, stressed out Nick. The two of them play off of each other well, which can make the sequences in which Kendrick interacts with poorly-rendered CGI animals fall flat in comparison.
But no one watches a movie like Noelle for the groundbreaking visual effects or an expertly crafted script. Christmas films such as this live and die by their holiday spirit, and Noelle has that by the sleigh load. It’s a light and breezy movie, almost too breezy in brushing over Santa’s death to get to the sweet story at its center. It’s an easy film to underestimate from the first half hour, but when the third act arrives, Noelle really hits a stride. Seeds planted in the first two acts are watered and brought to blossom in a few endearing scenes at the end of the movie. Its safe to say that even my Christmas cynicism was worn away, and a few joyous tears were shed.
Moreso, the third act is where Noelle attempts to say something about the nature of giving and receiving gifts. Material items aren’t everything isn’t a particularly new message, but the way that this movie goes about it — similar to Illumination’s The Grinch (2018) — is admirable and effective. A lot of the bits and pieces that assemble this movie are borrowed from the Christmas films that came before it, but the energy put into them here is undeniably infectious.
Whatever its faults, Noelle makes up for them with a great central performance, a bevy of colorful supporting characters, and a big red bag of holiday cheer. Anna Kendrick gives even the most derivative elements some spunk, and there are more than enough chuckles to engage with throughout. It’s certainly not an instant classic, but for Christmas entertainment, it’s a jolly good time.