Written By: Brittany Momah
Disney+ launches into the era of streaming original films with their holiday movie, Noelle (2019). Noelle follows the recipe of Elf (2003), with some modern-day updates, although it is unclear who the film is actually targeting. Disney+ has been extremely popular for nostalgic millennials (like myself) and its release was met with stellar reviews. While they’ve had some original hits (see: The Mandolarian), Noelle is certainly not one. The film contains an overly-crowded plot, lackluster performances from an A-list comedic cast (I’m looking at you, Billy Einchner), and an overused storyline. Is Noelle meant for us nostalgic millennials, or for Gen Zers growing up in the age of streaming? It’s hard to tell, and I’m not sure if Disney even knows.
The film follows, Noelle (Anna Kendrick), a heroine with an overly enthusiastic love of Christmas, who also happens to be the only daughter of Santa Claus (Jay Brazeau). Noelle desires to “do what [her dad] does,” but, naturally, only the men in the family are allowed to be Santa. Noelle’s brother, Nick (Bill Hader), is slated to take over the role after his father retires or, in this case, dies (because what’s a Disney movie without the death of a parent?). Santa Claus not-so-subtly reminds Noelle of the patriarchy of the family business when she expresses her desire to “do what [he] does” in the opening scene. It is remarked that she should stick to making Holiday cards and spreading Christmas cheer. It might as well have been Donner from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) telling her, “This is man’s work.”
The film’s plot builds as Nick trains to take over the role of Santa Claus with only a few short months to Christmas. He fails at almost every task and Noelle is advised to help him succeed. She blindly does as she is told and assumes her backseat role as a supporter to The Big Man. When Nick expresses a desire to “go somewhere warm” and do something outside of the family business, Noelle encourages him to “go away for the weekend.” Nick takes this advice, but does not return. When the townspeople of The North Pole find out that Santa Claus is missing-in-action, they’re all quick to place blame on Noelle. The theme of not-so-subtle gendered slurs continues as Noelle is berated with a barrage of microaggressions, including that she is being “hysterical” and the townsfolk placing all of the blame on her rather than Nick. The “Elder Elves” have to elect a new Santa Claus since Nick has disappeared and they choose cousin Gabe (Billy Einchner). According to the “Christmas Covenant, an adult male Kringle” must assume the role of Santa. It is then casually pointed out by Noelle’s Nanny, Polly (Shirley MacLaine), that the bylaws “don’t exactly say that” (read: foreshadowing).
What ensues from here follows Elf’s script of “overly-enthusiastic Christmas lover from The North Pole (Noelle) journeys to a foreign land (in this case, Phoenix, AZ) in search of a family member (Nick) and must also save Christmas.” Continuing with Elf’s format, Overly-Enthusiastic Character meets a Former-Believer, Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who becomes a believer again after spending time with Overly-Enthusiastic Character. This subplot is sweet, but forced. It feels like an entirely separate narrative crammed into an already-bloated plot. Jake is a P.I. who helps Noelle find Nick, but has his own baggage that Noelle helps to unload. He is clumsily trying to co-parent his son, but is making mistakes along the way. Of course, what he later finds out is that his son only cares about being with him and having both of his parents spend time together as a family. The sweet moment for lost believers and adults in this storyline is when Polly schools Jake on what it means to believe in Santa Claus and The North Pole. Jake states that he “tends to only believe what he sees.” Polly challenges this by questioning, “Can you see love? Can you see sorrow? Can you see joy? Is there anything realer than that? Like what you feel for your boy?” Cue some light tears and that “tender, warm” feeling in your soul that is expected of all Holiday films.
With the help of Jake and Polly, Noelle finds Nick in Arizona and convinces him to return to The North Pole to assume his role as Santa Claus. Back home, Gabe has been making a mockery of the holiday, due to his tech-minded ideas. As the head of technology, Gabe comes up with ideas like using Amazon Prime to deliver Christmas gifts and creating an algorithm to decide which children are naughty or nice (because Big Tech always ruins Mom and Pop Business). The stakes are high and Nick eventually decides to come home. His last-minute decision brings the crew back to The North Pole on Christmas Eve (obviously), so decisions need to be made ASAP. Nick publicly declares that he did not come home to be Santa, but rather to nominate Noelle as Santa. Outrage ensues and the obvious “a woman can’t be Santa” comments are inserted left and right; an elf literally says, “Santa’s not a girl!” in a disgusted tone. Nick explains he has come to realize that Noelle has taken over Santa’s “powers” (i.e. speaking any language, knowing what a child really wants for Christmas, and knowing whether someone is naughty or nice). Noelle is flabbergasted and still tries to refute this claim, because females can’t just accept something at first offer. The head Elf reveals that he reread The Christmas Covenant and it does not state that a woman can’t be Santa (surprise, surprise). He retorts, “It’s just a tradition we’ve been blindly following for thousands of years…these things happen!” Very funny, Disney.
The true tearjerker moment comes from Noelle’s first trip as Santa Claus. She is not feeling confident as she visits a shelter that she previously visited in Phoenix. She accidentally wakes everyone up while she is trying to deliver presents and a deaf little girl (whom Noelle interacted with earlier in the movie) looks at her and signs, “Merry Christmas, Santa.” The rest of the shelter follows suit and wishes Santa a Merry Christmas. Noelle truly assumes the role of Santa Claus in an inspirational moment for females everywhere.
The movie is jam-packed with plot points and cliches and the acting leaves something to be desired, despite the powerhouse cast. Overall, this movie is not Disney’s best effort when it comes to holiday films. There is a nice layer of female-empowerment (very on-brand at the moment), which is probably the film’s only redeeming quality. That, and an adorable little CGI reindeer named Snowcone who steals the whole show. Even though the female aspect is important and empowering, I’d say just stick to watching Elf.