Christmas is a holiday all about tradition: decorating the tree, wrapping presents, putting out cookies and milk for Santa. But what happens when a tradition doesn't work anymore? Do you persist, or realize even the sturdiest customs can change when times call for it? That's the problem at the heart of Noelle, a new Disney+ Christmas movie starring Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, and Billy Eichner as the next generation of Klauses trying to keep Christmas going after the death of Santa.
While it might seem harsh for a merry Christmas film, Noelle opens with Santa dead and the North Pole freaking out. Tradition says the eldest male is supposed to take over, but Nick Kringle (Hader) is wildly unsuited for the job. His sister Noelle (Kendrick) suggests a vacation, and Nick heads to Phoenix, Arizona. Unfortunately, he likes the vibe so much he decides not to come back. When cousin Gabriel (Eichner) comes in and tries to disrupt the North Pole by introducing new tech and plenty of jargon, Noelle sets out to drag her brother back home, not realizing there might be a better solution already at hand.
Producer Suzanne Todd says the film addresses a more insidious form of sexism prevalent today and more difficult to pinpoint than clear misogyny. "What's been happening in the North Pole in our movie prior to this is an "unconscious bias," she tells Bustle along with a small group of reporters on the Noelle set. "So, it's not somebody saying to [Noelle], 'You're not enough, you can't do it, you're a girl. You'll never be enough.' It's just always been that way."
The idea of Noelle taking over herself isn't even a possibility Noelle considers, which is why she spends most of the film overlooking her own skills at figuring out what kids want while attempting to drag Nick back. "Often times, in real life, that's the way women experience these kinds of situations. It's not that somebody actually told you that you couldn't. It's that the expectation is that you couldn't, because no one ever did."
Kendrick agrees, calling the North Pole's depiction in Noelle "a heightened version of systems that are in place." She points out that her character Noelle is part of her own problem. "She just kind of flits around and does whatever she wants and she's kind of loving it," she says. "Her brother is in training to be Santa Claus and he's very reluctant, but Noelle thinks that she can just whip him into shape in time. And then he disappears!"
The heart of the movie is Noelle in Arizona, trying to convince him to return while slowly realizing she — not her brother — might be happier taking over. "[Noelle] has lived being kind of bored and spoiled, and now that she is finding purpose, she has a much greater capacity for her heart to allow all these people in," Kendrick says. "It's kind of subtle in the movie, but there's just something that she has where people want to talk to her and open up to her, kind of like a bartender. Noelle wants to just make people happy, and she has a lot more compassion than she realizes."
Todd adds of Noelle's growth, "Often times when people don't have an expectation of you, you don't rise to the occasion, until some crisis happens in your life." For audiences, the idea of trying to step up and be your best self is the most relatable part, especially around the holidays. "That's the time of year when you really want to reach out and touch people, and be with people that you love, and be around people who love you, that is kind of the best version of what we all love about Christmas."
Of course, when you're the first of anything, not everybody may be ready to realize that traditions can change. When Hader explained his latest project to his kids and told them about Santa's daughter becoming Santa, "They went, 'A girl Santa?'" Hader laughs. "And I was like, 'Yeah.' And they’re like, 'But does she have a beard?'"
Playing Mrs. Claus, actress Julie Hagerty points out just how slow that process of learning can be. Asked if Mrs. Claus herself had any aspirations to take over the North Pole herself, she responds in the negative. "None, none whatsoever," she says. "She did manage the workshop, went to work with Santa every day, was very a much a part of it. It never felt like she was just home baking cookies. You know she really knew how to run things, but at that time, there’s still the tradition of the first son takes over."
Shirley MacLaine plays Noelle's nanny Polly, who is dragged along to Arizona on her quest. Polly helps Noelle harness her own power, and MacLaine hopes the same ends up being true of the film itself. "You know, it’s coming at exactly the right time," she says. If Christmas can change for the better after stale traditions break, there might just be hope for the wider world as well.
Reporting by Sydney Bucksbaum.