What do you get when you toss together Christmas cheer, Christmas kitsch, a fish-out-of-the-North-Pole setup swiped from “Elf,” and a plot that turns on whether Kris Kringle’s daughter, played as a perky naïf by Anna Kendrick, has what it takes to step into her dad’s snow boots? You get a plastic icicle like “Noelle,” a holiday trifle from Disney Plus that, in its intentionally goofy and innocuous way, defines the don’t-worry-be-happy-it’s-just-home-viewing metaphysic of the made-for-streaming-services era.
Long ago, it was called straight-to-tape. Then it was called straight-to-VOD, and now it’s straight to your monthly subscription service. But if the delivery system has changed, the content remains very much the same. When you see a movie like “Noelle,” what the experience comes down to is: It’s something you’re not watching in a theater because most of us wouldn’t watch it in a theater. It wouldn’t be worth the effort. Whatever your idea of a sentimental connect-the-dots Christmas comedy is, this is sub that. At home, however, we don’t have to mind; it’s all part of the diverting-ourselves-to-oblivion aesthetic of the 21st century. Next step: The entertainment will be piped directly into our brains, and then it really won’t matter how bad a movie is.
“Noelle” begins at the North Pole, which in this film looks like Aspen after a Christmas store exploded. On Christmas Eve, Noelle (Kendrick) watches Santa (Bryan Brendle) come into her home and deliver presents. It’s his last stop for the night; in this case, he really is home. When Noelle says she saw Mommy (Julie Hagerty) kissing Santa Claus, she means it.
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Santa, we learn, is one of a long line of Kringles who have taken on the role, and he is now set to pass the torch to Noelle’s brother, Nick Kringle, played by Bill Hader as the sort of fussbudget wuss who looks no more ready to become Santa Claus than he would Attila the Hun. But circumstances conspire to make the succession happen. So Noelle, whose job consists of crafting Christmas cards and wrapping packages in dainty ribbon, advises Nick to skip town for a bit. He takes her words a little too much to heart and vanishes, leaving the role of Santa high and dry. It’s up to Noelle and Elf Polly (yes, she’s played by Shirley MacLaine in elf ears and a scowl) to chase Nick down to Phoenix, Ariz., where he has moved to become a yoga instructor.
There’s a telling contradiction at the heart of the movie. As Noelle hires a private eye (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who is also a sweet divorced daddy, her befuddlement at how the world outside the North Pole works is established by her ignorance of assorted consumer goods. But the way the film presents it, Santa and his team are basically Amazon delivery people with cuddlier wardrobes (the film’s running product-placement meta-jape: everyone wants — and gets — an iPad for Christmas). So what is there for Noelle to be ignorant of? It’s no accident her sleigh first crash-lands at a shopping mall.
The genre of Yuletide fairy tales that depict the North Pole as a ho-ho-hum comedy of human error probably dates back to the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That special struck an ideal balance of tomfoolery and love, but a certain snarky aggro cynicism has been taking over Christmas movies ever since. “Noelle” is a G-rated lark for families, but it has that Disney kids’-TV flippancy. Back at the North Pole, Gabe Kringle (Billy Eichner), a cousin who is asked to step into the role of Santa, is revealed to be a tech marketing geek who says things like “Our research indicates that there are only 2,837 nice children in the world. Nearly every child fibbed, refused to eat their vegetables, or failed to practice proper dental hygiene!” Cue an elf choir singing, “Joy to the world, except for you! ‘Cause you…forgot…to floss!”
Yet “Noelle,” in its way, is a woke piece of kiddie product. The movie is about how Kendrick’s Noelle rises up to take on the role of Santa Claus. It’s not a development Fox News would be happy about; many around her protest, declaring, “Santa is a man!” Yes, but who says he has to be? It’s Noelle who has the twinkle in her eye, and Anna Kendrick is an actress who gives good twinkle. Even in a stocking stuffer as synthetic as this one.