Disney Plus’ original Christmas movie Noelle is like a recipe where all the ingredients are delicious, then realizing, once the dish has been cooked, that the flavors cancel each other out. Writer-director Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality, Music and Lyrics) is working with a lot of elements that, on their own, seem like fresh, bordering-on-subversive takes on classic Christmas themes. There’s a fish-out-of-water story, a story about inheritance in an inherently patriarchal society, a dip into the North Pole’s caste system, a story about how big businesses are bad, and of course, a lesson about the importance of the Christmas spirit. But when all these subplots are combined, they turn into a gloppy Christmas porridge.
Siblings Noelle (Anna Kendrick) and Nick Kringle (Bill Hader) are facing their first Christmas since the death of their father, Santa Claus (Bryan Brendle). Nick, as the next living male Kringle, is expected to take on the Santa mantle, but his training isn’t going well. His claustrophobia makes going down chimneys a nightmare, he can’t control the reindeer, and he lacks the Santa gut instincts, like being able to tell at a glance whether someone is naughty or nice, and automatically being able to understand and communicate in any language. His failures have him on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Noelle, whose sole function has been to make sure Nick’s doing all right, tells him to take the weekend before Christmas off to get himself together. Nick takes his break one step further: He doesn’t come back.
As the entire North Pole blames Noelle for her brother’s disappearance (and names her cousin Gabe, played by Billy Eichner, the new-new Santa), she takes it upon herself to get Nick back and thereby save Christmas. Part of Noelle’s Santa mythos is that Santa is the only member of the North Pole team allowed to leave, which means Noelle’s pursuit of Nick — which leads her to Arizona, of all places — turns into a strip-mall version of Enchanted, as her relentless optimism butts up against the cynicism of private investigator Jake (Kinglsey Ben-Adir), who she hires to find Nick.
Jake doesn’t believe in Christmas, which has become a source of anxiety since his recent divorce, as he doesn’t quite get along with his ex-wife. His son Alex (Maceo Smedley) confesses to Noelle that he has “mixed feelings” about the holiday: He wants to spend Christmas with his whole family, but doubts it’ll happen. When Noelle enters their lives, Jake’s Scrooge-iness inevitably starts to turn around, along with his well-intentioned but ultimately somewhat careless parenting.
All of the above unfolds without much tension, especially as Noelle proves she’s a natural at exercising the innate Santa skills Nick lacked. Kendrick breathes some life into the proceedings, cranking herself up to an energy level of 11 throughout, and making the best of the scenes where Noelle tries to eat sunblock, uses Christmas-y substitutions like “Oh my garland” instead of “Oh my God,” or drops “You better not frown, you better not cry” into the middle of an argument.
Noelle only breaks out of its saccharine Christmas mold when it comes to the details and subplots. Noelle’s journey toward Santa-selflessness partially involves her nanny elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine), who comes across as a Dobby (the Harry Potter house elf) analogue, except she’s a fully grown human who just happens to have pointy ears. Polly still cares for Noelle into adulthood, doing her laundry, chopping her firewood, and cooking her food. Though we know Noelle is meant to mature in this film, her dynamic with Polly is portrayed as “cute” from the jump — Polly pulls the sheets right out from underneath Noelle, and reprimands her for eating waffles in bed — rather than an outdated and kind of creepy dynamic. (Like, for instance, the Santa mantle only passing to men.) Noelle informing Polly that her favorite underwear needs washing feels jarring, not funny — the Kringles (the only humans in the North Pole, in the middle of an elf community) are the North Pole’s 1 percenters.
In that vein, the part of Noelle that actually gets interesting involves Gabe, a former North Pole tech worker who starts digitizing the North Pole’s workflow once he’s appointed Santa. He devises an algorithm to discern naughty from nice, and sets up drones and mechanical ice floes to facilitate deliveries, since Noelle took the Santa sleigh to find Nick. Gabe basically turns the North Pole into Amazon — he even refers to the company as an alternate delivery service. Christmas suddenly becomes standardized and a little soulless, as seems to be inevitable when a business becomes huge. It’s a storyline that threatens to throw the film into Black Mirror territory. (“Corporate Christmas” could easily be an episode of the Netflix anthology.) As a result, it doesn’t last long.
That familiar Christmas-special idea of Christmas headed down a bad road and Noelle’s brief introspection about the importance of physical gifts (a lesser retread of the anti-capitalist message of How the Grinch Stole Christmas) both get lost as Lawrence ties up Noelle’s more immediate family-friendly story. These subplots are bizarre sidekicks for the main story, and not particularly conducive to the Christmas spirit. They interrogate the holiday beyond Noelle’s crisis about some people being in need, threatening to dig into the holiday’s commercial nature, and explore how it’s less a religious holiday today, and more a corporate one. But those aren’t stories with happy endings, so they have to be dropped in favor of a story that can be easily, smoothly resolved.
Noelle’s central story is saddled with the production values of a direct-to-streaming movie. The digital effects are noticeably bad, and the movie’s Arizona-set scenes feel totally lifeless. While an Arctic dweller having to deal with a 180 in climate is an entertaining idea, the featureless shopping center Noelle winds up in makes a strong case for why Buddy the Elf ended up in the more colorful, cinema-friendly New York in Elf. On top of that, most of the major stars besides Kendrick are, in reality, barely in the film. Though Lawrence is working with remarkable parts, he’s assembled them into a glorified Disney Channel original movie. It’s fine, but forgettable — a bland meal lacking any salt or spice.
Noelle is streaming on Disney Plus now.