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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Noelle is appropriate for the whole family but will likely appeal most to grade-schoolers, who are likely to feel the most connection with its holiday-spirit messages, storylines, and humor, as well as with star Anna Kendrick. Younger viewers might be less interested in the central storyline of Noelle's brother, a young man who runs away because he feels trapped by an inherited profession. His newfound yoga vocation could also stretch past their interest zone. But tween audiences will enjoy th empowering tale of a daughter perennially overlooked for a position she turns out to be the most qualified for. The subplots of kids being deemed naughty or nice and families seeking togetherness and well-being over material possessions offer positive messages for all ages. Language, sexual content, and violence are essentially absent, but brand names are rampant (this is a Christmas movie, after all).
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What's the story?
NOELLE (Anna Kendrick) is Santa's daughter and also sister to Nick Kringle (Bill Hader), recently anointed Santa to replace his deceased father. The problem is that Nick doesn't seem to have what it takes to master the basic requirements of the job -- sliding down chimneys and steering the sleigh -- let alone the more complex tasks, intuiting what people really want and whether they've been naughty or nice. When Nick runs away to Phoenix, Noelle and her sassy elf assistant Polly (Shirley MacLaine) chase after him. There they encounter complexities of American life like homelessness, divorce, and loneliness. Noelle enlists private investigator Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a divorced dad to sweet kid Alex (Maceo Smedley), to help her hunt down her brother. When she finds Nick, it slowly dawns on them all that she's the woman for the job.
Is it any good?
This takes the formula for a feel-good holiday movie and throws in a few twists, including a gender role reversal, some modern humor, foot-tapping tunes, and updated versions of the North Pole. Older audiences may get a chuckle from jokes about delivering presents by drone and Amazon Prime, adjusting algorithms to track kids' online habits to determine their naughtiness, and the appearance of a typically droll Shirley MacLaine. There are also a couple of nods to non-Christians, potentially as outreach to wider audiences, including a line Noelle delivers that "Christmas is like sushi: The Japanese invented it but now everybody loves it."
That may be true, but as with sushi lovers, film fans notice the imperfections, and Noelle stumbles in a few places. An intro of the Kringle family when the siblings were kids feels unnecessary and contributes to a slightly long runtime. CGI creatures -- reindeer and puffins -- are somewhat out of place in this ultimately human tale. A running reference to Noelle as a "princess" threatens to subvert the feminist storyline. Comparisons to Elf (another North Pole creature-meets-world tale) will be inevitable, and while Kendrick's Noelle is sweeter, she's not quite as funny. Still, Christmas is about setting aside petty complaints and -- as Noelle and Polly remind us in final scenes -- finding hope, inspiration, and joy in the holiday spirit.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how they would react if an icon like Santa changed genders, as happens in Noelle. How much of the symbolism of Santa Claus is wrapped up in his traditional depiction as a jolly, white-bearded old man? Can you imagine a female Santa?
When he's appointed Santa, Noelle's cousin Gabe invents an algorithm that determines almost all kids are naughty because of minor infractions like not flossing or not eating their veggies. Why do others at the North Pole consider this so unfair?
How does this film compare with other Christmas movies you've watched?
What do the holidays mean to you?
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