First, a bummer: Santa Claus is dead. Now the good news. Bill Hader is his replacement.
There’s just one problem: Nick would rather teach silent meditation retreats in the Arizona desert than shimmy down chimneys and deliver presents. He prefers tie-dye to fur-lined red, and heat to snow. Chipper and capable, Nick’s sister, Noelle (Anna Kendrick), shows far more aptitude for the family business.
If you think you’ve guessed the movie’s big reveal, then congratulations — you probably have. Unfortunately, aside from Elf Polly’s (Shirley MacLain) increasingly outlandish outfit changes, Noelle does not offer many more twists than the one you have already correctly identified. What Noelle does have is an all-star cast: Kendrick, Hader, MacLain, Billy Eichner, Julie Hagerty, and an irresistibly cute baby CGI reindeer.
Alas, not even their combined talent can elevate Noelle from being a pile of Christmas movie tropes, with a gender-swap premise slumping on top like a crooked bow someone abandoned after watching five YouTube tutorials. Which is a shame, considering Noelle has the admirable goal of letting a woman take over as the holiday season’s famous figure, as well as finally putting Bill Hader in a Christmas movie.
This tale of the Kringle family legacy (and burden) begins when, at the urging of his younger sister, Nick decides to take a vacation from the demands of running a 24/7 North Pole factory. He escapes to Arizona only a few days before Christmas, throwing the North Pole into mayhem.
Gabriel (Billy Eichner), the next eligible Kringle, takes over as Santa. The closest thing this movie comes to having a villain is when Gabriel implements an algorithm to determine who lands on the Nice List. With his pasty skin, five o’clock shadow, and gadget obsession, Gabriel is clearly a dig at myopic tech bros who overlook the elusive beauty of the holiday spirit by focusing on facts. It rings as ironic, considering this is a movie on a brand new streaming site owned by a company who want to collect your health data, internet browsing history, and email details.
With the North Pole teetering on technocracy, Noelle leaves for the first time to track down her brother. At last, she’ll meet the people for whom her family has worked to please for 2,000 years and counting: the citizens of Earth.
At first, humans are disappointing. Just as Buddy the Elf stuck out in snowy New York in Elf, Noelle’s naivety and vocal belief in Santa render her a strange, cutsey alien among the hardened people of Phoenix, AZ. But Noelle manages to find goodness lurking in new friends, like private investigator Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his son (Maceo Smedley), which she fosters through tailored Christmas gifts.
That, in the end, is the raison d'être of every elf and Kringle on the North Pole; to love the cynical, iPad-hungry humans who doubt your existence. By focusing so much on the gig’s thankless day-to-day processes, from an wieldy Santa Claus manual to sleigh supply chain logistics, Noelle inadvertently reveals the North Pole to be a work-obsessed dystopia. If they're going to exist in a perpetual Christmas factory, then these elves need to unionize.
The person who should be angriest about the North Pole’s status quo is, of course, Noelle. She is born to be Santa. It’s obvious, from her ability to peer into children’s souls to her bond with the reindeer. Yet she’s overlooked, time and time again, by her family, who prefer her lazy and awkward older brother simply because tradition dictates men assume the mantle of Santa. Noelle is so tightly wound because she has been gaslit into thinking she’s inadequate and into taking herself out of the running entirely.
Distractingly spotty world-building and inconsistent tonal switches ricochet Noelle between children’s classic to adult B-movie. Noelle may not shine as a whole, but for its simple and radical rewriting of the Santa Claus myth, Noelle is worth the watch.
As with all Santa movies, audiences have to suspend their disbelief about the “rules” of the real world to buy the tear-jerking, sentimental ending. Noelle’s happy, but unbelievable, conclusion is that the world could accept a Santa that looks like Anna Kendrick. With Noelle premiering on November 12 to all Disney+’ subscribers, we’ll see if audiences can.