‘Tis that time of year again.
Everyone’s forgotten about Thanksgiving and skipped straight to Christmas. Last week alone, we got our first holiday offerings at the box office with Last Christmas, and on Netflix with Let It Snow. This week Disney contributed to the trend with Noelle, a feature film that debuted on Disney+ exclusively at its launch.
Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick plays the titular character, Noelle Kringle, who has always grown up in the shadow of her older brother Nick, played by the always entertaining Bill Hader. The two of them are Santa’s children, and it is established at the very beginning of the film that Nick will be his father’s successor. Noelle has no animosity between her brother because (as we all know) there’s no such thing in the North Pole, but she does question her role within the family. Everyone, including her family’s caretaker, Polly (Academy Award Winner Shirley MacLaine), seems to have a purpose except for her. As she grows up though, she finds fulfillment in being her brother’s advisor.
When Santa eventually passes away, Nick finally prepares to fill his father’s shoes, but the pressure slowly gets to him. After Noelle unwittingly suggests he take a break to clear his head before Christmas, he gets cold feet and runs away. With the holiday fast-approaching, Noelle tasks herself with finding her brother and bringing him back home, and in the process she discovers her true purpose too.
Now, the film is every bit as predictable as it sounds, but it’s not bad. It’s far from good though.
As mentioned before, in addition to Kendrick and Hader, the film also features Shirley MacLaine, as well as Billy Eichner. MacLaine plays an older elf that has always taken care of the Kringle family, and in an attempt to protect Noelle, she even accompanies her when she leaves the North Pole to find Nick. She is a wisecrack, but she’s criminally underused. She’s rarely given anything to do, and only seems to appear in the film when its convenient for the plot. Eichner also doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as he should, but despite that, I think he steals the show. He plays Noelle and Nick’s cousin, Gabriel, who insists that technology is the answer to everything. For instance, at one point he suggests that gifts be delivered via Amazon Prime! When Nick disappears, he is forced to be the new Santa and tries modernize the job to everyone else’s dismay. Every time he appeared onscreen, I laughed. He has a lot of fun with the role and surprisingly stands out a lot more than the person I expected to shine: Bill Hader.
For the most part, Hader tries to play it straight here, and while he’s not bad, any fans expecting his traditional shtick will be disappointed.
Like most Disney movies, this movie has a big heart and a great message. But also like most Disney movies, it’s vaguely reminiscent of something superior. Despite a slightly similar premise, I think Elf does this “fish out of water” story better. Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf’s obliviousness is what defines his character and is the basis for a lot of the humorous situations he finds himself in. While Anna Kendrick’s Noelle is innocent and trusting, it’s hard to believe that she’s entirely oblivious. Over the course of the film, she does find herself in similarly hilarious situations to Buddy, but you can’t help but feel like she knows better. There’s one moment in the film where she’s talking to another character about how she knows no one will believe she’s from the North Pole because it sounds too ridiculous, but then a few moments later she starts rambling on about how she knows the fabled character Jack Frost. Little inconsistencies like that expose idiosyncratic character traits as just poor writing.
The writing isn’t the worst part of the film though. Nearly all of the special effects are outdated. Any time a person stands next to a reindeer in this film, you can tell something is off. Once again, Elf came out over a decade ago, and I’d argue that even the special effects in that film still hold up. It’s especially surprising that this particular company put such little effort into a film of this caliber.
With Noelle, it’s very evident that Disney was trying to recreate the formulaic magic of so many other Christmas movies. I think that anyone who enjoys anything Christmas or Disney might like this film, but personally I’ve seen better offerings on both the Hallmark and Disney channels. With the holiday season right around the corner, I’m confident that there are much better films to come, but until then you better watch out.