Noelle would seem to have all the necessary elements you’d want to find in a feature comedy: a few recognizable actors, a high-concept premise, a character arc, setpieces, etc. But there’s something just…off about the whole affair, from its opening moments. Maybe the key problem here is that the basic conclusion of the movie is such an obvious, foregone conclusion. Or maybe it’s that the humor is lifeless, or the emotion false and unearned. Whatever it is, Noelle is the kind of Christmas present that has shiny packaging and a whole lot of nothing behind all the wrappings.
At the North Pole, our heroine Noelle (Anna Kendrick) lives happily enough as the daughter of the current Santa Claus (the 22nd in his line). She’s bubbling with good cheer, always focused on raising Christmas spirit, and at the ready with a holiday-themed bromide. That should be that for Noelle, especially after her brother Nick (Bill Hader) gets the job of Santa Claus after their dad dies. Problem is, Nick is desperately unhappy and unwilling to be Santa; Noelle recommends he take a weekend off in a warmer climate. Nick interprets it differently, though, and abandons the North Pole for Phoenix, Arizona. Only Noelle and her longtime nanny Polly (Shirley MacLaine) can make things right again and save Christmas from her techie cousin Gabe (Billy Eichner) and his refusal to give most good kids any present.
In the prologue, a young Noelle all but asks her dad, the Santa, to be the next Santa herself. But Santa implies, as do many of the other characters at the Pole, that only a man can be Santa. (There is a line of dialogue near the end recalling the Air Bud line where a referee points out that the rules don’t stop a dog from playing, and my hand to God, I wish I was kidding.) If you’re still wondering whether this movie ends with Noelle actually becoming the new Santa, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you. Noelle has a very clear ending in mind as soon as writer/director Marc Lawrence gets things going, which makes all of the title character’s protestations that she could never be Santa, that would be crazy, and so on, all the more ridiculous.
Noelle is also hampered, ironically, by its lead actress. Anna Kendrick is, as ever, a very talented actress, vibrant and full of quirky energy. The problem is not that Kendrick is unbelievable as a woman who would be Santa, or as a woman who loves the holidays. The problem comes when the fish-out-of-water premise of a North Pole denizen traveling to the real world kicks in, and Kendrick essentially cosplays as Will Ferrell in Elf. Ferrell’s performance as Buddy the Elf works so well because, among other things, he’s great at playing dumb, picking old gum off railings or not realizing the difference between maple syrup and hard liquor. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, doesn’t play dumb very well. When Noelle takes a bottle of sunblock and tries to eat it, it’s a bad gag that lands poorly both because of the timing and because Kendrick just seems far too smart to do something so doofy.
With the more outrageous humor landing poorly, Noelle leans further into the territory of the mawkish. In Phoenix, Noelle connects with a cynical private investigator (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his son, while bonding with the employees of a local outdoor mall and even reaching out to a young single mother and her deaf daughter at a homeless shelter. We are, in these moments, meant to warm further to Noelle – who is intended to be a fairly selfish character, an emotional beat that’s never given enough detail. Instead, these moments feel like leftovers from a Hallmark Holiday Movie.
This is, of course, the part where I will point out the obvious: you can only watch Noelle on Disney+, the new streaming service where the film will live in perpetuity. (Originally, Noelle was intended to be released in theaters, which seems a bit hard to believe considering its somewhat chintzy design.) It may still be damning to suggest that some films – good or bad – maybe are best experienced on your computer or your big-screen TV, but nothing about Noelle, down to its sloppy computer-generated reindeer, screams out for actual big-screen presentation. Its widescreen aspect ratio aside, Noelle gives off the distinct sense that it was always meant for your TV.
We now have two different Disney+ movies to consider, Lady and the Tramp and Noelle. So far, the results are not terribly encouraging. Noelle is approaching treacherous territory from the start. There are some truly wonderful holiday movies, but this is not one of them. It’s one thing to take your cue from Elf, but that risk isn’t mitigated here by the flat stretches of emptiness and no laughs. (Perhaps the funniest part of this movie is that, in spite of constant product placement for iPads, it wasn’t released by Apple TV+.) Noelle has a charming cast that’s been stripped of their warmth, and a story that’s both painfully predictable and sentimental. It’s so blah that this doesn’t even deserve a closing Santa-themed pun. It’s best left forgotten.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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