This year, the 12 Days of Christmas is getting a special TEENPLICITY twist – 12 Days of TEENPLICITY! From Saturday, December 12th through Wednesday, December 23rd, we will be posting a new holiday-themed feature each day! Including interviews with this season’s merriest entertainers as well as tips for the best holiday treats, we hope this celebration will bring some joy and good cheer to all during a very tough year.
As part of this special event, the 2nd Teenpliciday is about Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. TEENPLICITY spoke to Madalen Mills about being a part of the newest holiday musical, joy and family, and what it means to find and define what’s possible.
When Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey dropped on Netflix in November, it was like everyone who watched it immediately found themselves bursting with the joy they had been missing. A mix of music, fantasy, wishes, and wonder, the holiday spectacular brings forth a new Christmas story, that of Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell, Forest Whittaker), the greatest inventor and toymaker there was who finds his life falling apart just as he has produced his greatest invention yet.
As he and his daughter Jessica (Diaana Babnicova, Anika Noni Rose) deal with the heartbreak of losing their family, each other, and the magic of their imaginations, they both try to figure out how to move on accepting that the lives they once had are no more. While Jessica questions if her relationship with Jeronicus can ever be repaired, Jeronicus, still depressed and empty of hope and imagination, is left with two days to get an old invention of Jessica’s, The Buddy 3000, to work or else he loses his shop.
In the same way that The Buddy 3000 needs people to believe in them in order to work, Jeronicus needs someone to believe in him, and that someone comes in the form of his granddaughter Journey played by Madalen Mills (Broadway’s School of Rock). Optimistic and creative at heart, she’s described as peculiar for her love of science and math and the shared ability she has with Jeronicus before his light dimmed to see and understand what others would consider impossible.
Madalen has had the pleasure of working on two Christmas classics now. In 2017, she was in the national touring company of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. While Jeronicus may not be Grinch-level pessimistic, both projects center on a character that has lost the spirit while those surrounding them are the spark that helps them reignite it. Meaning that Madalen got the pleasure of literally delivering joy in both projects.
“Working itself is really, really fun for me and it always brings me joy,” she says over the phone when I ask if it feels like she has to bring more heightened energy when working on a Christmas project. “I feel like the holidays are about joy and family and just happiness, and I always try to bring that, so I don’t know if it’s a different mindset, but I just try my best at whatever I’m doing.”
Speaking to Madalen, you immediately get how she got the role of Journey. As the project’s writer/director David E. Talbert has said, the role practically does belong to her. Jingle Jangle‘s story and its message are what drew her to the project, especially looking at the character of Journey and what she represents. “I feel like at the beginning of the film especially, Journey is really unsure about where she fits in and even if she fits in. I really wanted to make sure that was known because it can be difficult to go from one emotion and then really portray that journey throughout the film where she starts to find herself.” The experience, she says, tested her acting getting to portray the journey of Journey.
Understanding where she fits in is also something Madalen can relate to. Similar to Journey, she enjoys expressing herself through her look. As a lover of fashion, Madalen says that her interest in fashion has developed even more, but one signature piece in her closet is what her mom refers to as “Herman the Monster” shoes, something she laughs at while saying. “I cannot even tell you how many strange looks I get just like walking down the street,” she laughs some more referring to the platformed sneakers. “Yeah, I definitely think I’m different from my peers, but we are all different in our own ways, you know? So, I definitely had to reach inside and be like, ‘It’s okay to be yourself, you can wear Herman the Monster shoes,'” she laughs some more.
One of Journey’s gifts is her ability to reach inside herself as well. Our first real introduction of her is a hopeful one. She sings “Not the Only One” in her room. Consumed with her love of STEM, hopeful optimism, and a bright imagination, Journey knows how other people see her but also knows that her gifts extend past herself. “Journey is able to believe in other people even when they are not what she expected or what she heard,” Madalen begins about what playing Journey has taught her.
Journey is able to believe in other people even when they are not what she expected or what she heard.
“When she first meets [Jeronicus], not to give too much away, he’s down. He’s not the same inventor that Journey was told about in her mom’s stories. So I think Journey’s ability to really believe in others and not just her Journey to believe in herself but to believe in others because I think it’s really important to always have that someone behind you that is pushing you. When you do get down on yourself or you’re trying to find that light from within, there’s always that one person, at least for me, that’s always like, ‘You can do this.’ And really ignites that spark in you. Journey really does that for Jeronicus and I think that’s great and that’s definitely something I’ve learned and known that maybe I need to be that friend or that person that was like, ‘You can do this.'”
Neither Jeronicus nor Jessica starts off feeling down and out. It’s something that grows in both of them as they both move on in life without ever really getting to heal from the events that broke their family apart. Madalen refers to the lyrics in “Not the Only One” where she sings, ‘I’m going to go and find it because I’m not the only one'” for what keeps her from getting discouraged despite seeing her family coping. “I think when she meets Jeronicus, it’s a bit of a let down for her, but deep down inside, she knows that he is the great inventor that she had been told about. She also feels like inside, she finally feels like she’s found someone who is like her, and she’s not going to give up on Jeronicus.
Madalen explains that her spark to keep going and not allow Jeronicus and Jessica to give up is in her willingness to push Jeronicus. “Just to fulfill herself and know that she’s not the only one, but also because I feel like Journey is a great person in general,” she beams adding that she has a readiness to let people know she believes in them to succeed in their goals and dreams.
Perhaps, Jingle Jangle premiered at the right time. A project that David E. Talbert has been working on for years, it’s fitting for 2020 to be the year we first see it. In a year where racial and social injustice, as well as a pandemic, has forced us to collectively reflect on loss, obstacles, and the ways these things can discourage us, it’s easy to immediately relate to Jeronicus and feel your heart be refilled watching Journey and Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) teach him that even though it may feel like it, he won’t be stuck there forever.
“Well, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has so many amazing messages. It’s about light and hope and the power of belief and possibilities and spending time just really cherishing your loved ones and people closest to you. I think that all of those messages and ideas are really, really important especially in these times,” Madalen explains. “I just hope people have a good time when they’re watching Jingle Jangle, I hope they can just really get into the story even if it’s just a brief escape of what their current situation is, I just hope people really enjoy and have a good time.”
As Jeronicus tells Journey, “A child with an imagination always belongs. Never be afraid when people can’t see what you see, only be afraid if you no longer see it.” A reminder to never give up even when/if it feels like all hope is lost and possibility is no more.
The magic of Jingle Jangle comes in many forms, one of them being Black girl magic. Originally worded as “Black girls are magic,” it’s a term created by CaShawn Thompson to highlight the power, achievements, and beauty of Black girls/women. While it’s been adapted into so many things and used in different ways, often without credit being given to Ms. Thompson, it’s impossible to not see Journey be it surrounded by sparkles while envisioning the impossible or simply seeing a problem and knowing she has the power to create a solution and not feel delighted by the magic she possesses. Especially when it’s rooted in so much creativity and a love for STEM.
“I mean, when it comes to Black girl magic being mixed with all things STEM, I definitely get my inspiration from my mother because she is a mathematical wiz, okay,” Madalen exclaims. “I feel like that is where I get my love for math in the first place because I love all things STEM too. So I definitely associate those two things with each other because guess what?! Black girls can do anything and there is Black girl magic in participating in sports, in STEM, in anything that has been typically attributed to boys, there is Black girl magic in all of it,” Madalen states matter-of-factly.
Black girls can do anything and there is Black girl magic in participating in sports, in STEM, in anything that has been typically attributed to boys, there is Black girl magic in all of it.
That carries into the way that Black girl magic inspires her to keep going, much like Journey, “In school [and] in general, there are going to be problems and assignments that stump you, and like I said, Black girl magic, it’s in my blood so I feel like you just have to be very determined to get what you’re struggling with right. And that magic, I feel like I definitely carry into my academics and things that I do outside of the business.”
Another form of magic in Jingle Jangle is best summed up in a quote from Ms. Johnston when she tells Jeronicus, “The magic isn’t just about what you’ve lost, it’s in what you still have.” It’s a feeling we tend to reflect on a lot during the holidays and as the year comes to a close but has been a current thing we’ve found ourselves thinking about throughout 2020. “For me personally, I think I’ve really reflected on how fortunate I am and my family is,” Madalen starts when I ask her about what she’s still finding magic in.
“I feel like especially during this time, you get to see all the cars lining up that need food and I really realize how grateful I should be, how grateful I am, and really how thankful I am for what I have. I’ve also found magic in spending quality time with my family and with my cats because I feel like when the world’s back to ‘normal,’ you know, or when the world was ‘normal,’ we’re all just running around doing whatever we need to do. We don’t really find time to really appreciate the things that we have and the people that we surround ourselves with. So, I’ve found magic in my family and really reflecting in general and just trying to be an optimist and seeing the bright side in everything.”
The building of the world the characters in Jingle Jangle exist in is both grounded and imaginative. Each character has their own distinct look with hairstyles from hair and makeup designer Sharon Martin recreating and reimaging Black hairstyles of the Victorian time period as well as so much detail in their costumes.
For stepping into and transforming into her character, Madalen cites her character’s boots for helping her get into character. “My character Journey’s boots are so cool and they remind me so much of Journey actually, which is probably why she wears them,” Madalen says like it immediately hits her at that moment. “They have all these different patterns on the boots and the colors and I remember every time I would have to get dressed in my costume and put the boots on, there was a specific way that I [and my costume helper] did the laces. And I feel like that would be Journey,” Madalen laughs.
“She would have a specific way to do everything and have it be unique. So definitely the boots. And the hair of course,” Madalen refers to the beloved faux-hawk. “I really liked Journey’s hair and I feel like it really put me into the character, especially her little ribbons on the side with like the cogs and everything, it really reminded me of Journey and her love of STEM.”
In terms of other characters look that she loves, she gives a shoutout to the incredibly stylish, Emerald City-in-The Wiz worthy look that Keegan Michael-Key gets to wear as Gustafson. “He has this amazing staff and a lot of villains I’ve found, have staffs, but his staff is so cool,” Madalen beams. “It’s like golden at the top with like a ‘G’ on it and then it’s like green all the way down, so I would definitely want one of those but like with a ‘J’ for Journey or an ‘M’ for Madalen or something like that.”
The details also extend to set design where love is shown to other Black creatives and inventors in small ways. “Jeronicus has these locations, it’s like a map in his shop and it has different locations on them and each location means something and one of the locations on there is Wakanda!” she exclaims in amazement over the fictional African country home to Marvel superhero Black Panther. (It’s also important to note that Forest Whittaker starred in Black Panther alongside the late Chadwick Boseman.) “It’s so interesting and crazy how you fit modern-day things or things we’ve seen in other movies in this movie and the details. You know, Mr. David E. Talbert was talking about [how] every single shop in the town of Cobbleton has a specific Black inventor behind the name of the shop. So yeah, the attention to detail was insane and I definitely have to commend every single set designer, Mr. Talbert, Ms. Lyn Sisson-Talbert, everyone who put their hands on the magic that you see in the movie.”
Another detail that gives flowers to Black creatives who have impacted us is Phylica Rashad’s look, inspired by Toni Morrison and Lena Horne, it was one of the many concepts that Lyn Sisson-Talbert dreamed up to be put in the movie but it’s certainly not the last. “I feel like you don’t get to see the people behind the scenes and Ms. Lyn, she worked so, so hard. She worked tirelessly on this movie and her determination to get everything done is inspiring and I don’t even know how she did it all,” Madalen says. “So I love Ms. Lyn, I love the whole Talbert family, but Ms. Lyn, she made the magic, she was a big part of making the magic happen so you know, that’s definitely an inspiration right there. That is Black Girl Magic,” she exclaims and you can feel a smile on her face over the phone.
We don’t really find time to really appreciate the things that we have and the people that we surround ourselves with. So, I’ve found magic in my family and really reflecting in general and just trying to be an optimist and seeing the bright side in everything.
Working alongside so much seasoned excellence and talent on this project, I ask her if there’s anything she hopes she could have taught them. It’s a question she responds humbly to and with a laugh says, “Ooh, I don’t know if I can teach them anything. I was the main one learning, okay!” With this being her first movie, the experience found itself to be rewarding. “I was just the 10-year-old kid coming and always like tap dancing in sneakers so I don’t know if I necessarily taught them anything but I did my best, you know? And I had a lot of fun. They’re all so sweet and kind so I definitely learned more from them.”
It’s an honor that she takes in as much as she can even past the project. When we get on the subject of how she’s taken up baking since quarantine went into effect earlier this year, I ask her if there’s a recipe she’s interested in trying maybe for the holidays and her immediate thought goes to her co-star Anika Noni Rose. “So Ms. Anika Noni Rose who plays my mom in the movie, obviously we all know and love her as Princess Tiana! That was so crazy to get to work with her because I already loved Princess Tiana,” Madalen muses like she still can’t believe it happened. “I really wanna try and make Tiana’s beignets. I really wanna try and do that and send it to Ms. Anika and be like, ‘Guess what?! I’ll send you some beignets.’ So yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the food item I will try out.”
In terms of favorite holidays go, however, she says that it’s hard to pick one because she loves all of the holidays for different reasons. “For Halloween, you get to eat candy and watch horror movies and sometimes dress up. Actually, this Halloween, I was Harley Quinn and that was really fun. For Thanksgiving, you get to eat and who doesn’t love food? I know I’m a huge foodie so that’s one of the reasons I love Thanksgiving.” Since we have our conversation only a few days before Thanksgiving, I ask her if there’s a dish she’s looking forward to the most and she excitedly praises her mom’s sweet potato casserole as one of the best things she’s ever eaten.
“For Christmas, you get to give and get presents and for Easter, I mean, you get candy again and the Easter Bunny comes to visit, so all the holidays are great, I mean, in their own ways,” she concludes.
“I don’t know if I’m looking at it differently, I mean there are definitely differences with the coronavirus and everything like that, but I’m definitely going to celebrate safely at home and maybe I’ll even get in the kitchen and bake something,” she says when I ask her about how she feels about celebrating the holidays this year. “Ultimately the holidays for me is about just happiness and we’re probably gonna watch Jingle Jangle again and you know, maybe Facetiming with our family.”
Jingle Jangle is streaming now on Netflix and the soundtrack is available wherever you listen to music.