There are many Christmas movies out there, but only a few of them have moved on to become family favorites. Among the ranks of Elf, Home Alone, and A Christmas Story, Disney+ hopes to add Noelle, one of their first original films, as a modern holiday classic for the whole family.
Noelle stars Anna Kendrick, as the titular character who is the daughter of the recently deceased Santa Claus. When her brother, Nick (Bill Hader) learns he must succeed his father’s legacy, he panics and runs away to Phoenix, Arizona. Noelle, who was never considered as a replacement, sets off with her magical elf-nanny, Polly (Shirley MacLaine), to find him so he can take his place as Santa before their cousin, Gabe (Billy Eichner), destroys everything Christmas has ever meant. But along the way, both she, and the elves in the North Pole start to wonder if she should become the first female Santa Claus.
Two years ago, we headed to Vancouver to visit the Christmas set and sat down with Anna Kendrick to talk about who Noelle is, if this is a feminist film, and what it was like working with a legend like Shirley MacLaine.
KENDRICK: Noelle is kind of a spoiled, very bored, young lady. She gets waited on hand and foot, even though she insists she can do everything by herself, by Polly (Shirley MacLaine) who is like 250 years old and this amazing, sort of, magical elf creature. Noelle just kind of flits around and does whatever she wants and I’ll be honest, she’s loving life. Her brother is in training to be Santa Claus and he’s very reluctant, but Noelle thinks that she can just like whip him into shape in time. And then he disappears and things happen!
Noelle embodies Christmas more than her brother does. What are the special qualities that she has?
KENDRICK: There are some concrete magic things, which are always fun. Having a little mythology for a movie is always nice, to have a certain set of rules for Santa. It’s those questions that all children ask about Santa when they find out about Santa. Like, “How does Santa fit down the chimney if it’s not wide enough?” and we have a magical candy cane that expands the chimney. And Santa can speak every language, so Santa can ask any child what he or she wants for Christmas. There are lots of fun magical powers that she is discovering she has.
But also, just a warm quality. It’s 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. That’s not very family-friendly, but she has that therapist quality where people find themselves opening up and not knowing why. And Noelle wants to make people happy and she has a lot more compassion than she realizes. She has lived being 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, as it were.
Has there been a set or a scene that’s been particularly special for you?
KENDRICK: I mean, all of them. The production design on this is bonkers. It is so exciting. The Kringle cottage, where the Kringles live, is incredible. And what’s crazy is this is where the Kringle cottage was, and now it’s something completely different. They build these sets and then fold them up and then build new amazing sets. The mall was pretty cool because it was a mall and I was like, “These sunglasses are cute. Who gets to keep these?” The sleigh is also really fun. It’s on this big gimbal and there’s a guy across the room holding a remote and he just throws you around. We had to do a lot of takes of those because I couldn’t stop smiling. It really feels like you’re on a personalized roller coaster, so I ruined a lot of takes because I could not contain how happy it made me and I was supposed to be, like, really scared.
Along those lines, you’re working with some incredibly funny people in Bill Hader and Billy Eichner [as Noelle’s tech-loving cousin Gabe]. Is breaking a problem?
KENDRICK: Breaking is a big problem for me. But, luckily, Bill describes himself as a soft touch, so if I break, he breaks. So I can be like, “He started it!”
What surprised you the most about getting to work with Shirley?
KENDRICK: I’m going to say it was surprising but it kind of shouldn’t have been, just the feistiness in that woman. She has all these amazing stories and she is stubborn and opinionated and she’s not here for anybody’s shit and it’s the best thing. It’s so amazing. I don’t know if it’s a surprise but just what a badass she is.
Did you learn anything from working with her?
KENDRICK: I mean, I learned a lot of things I can’t tell you guys! [Laughs] Let me tell you… But there are definitely times where I think, “Maybe I should be more agreeable to make fewer waves,” because I’m stubborn and I’m opinionated. But I want to be working when I’m 83 and looking at her is really inspiring, because it seems like she hasn’t taken shit from anybody at any point in her life.
Do you consider this a feminist movie because Noelle is breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the first female Santa Claus?
KENDRICK: Yeah. I mean, the scene we’re doing right now, it’s obviously a fantasy film and it’s a heightened version of systems that are in place. There’s this line that’s thrown away about like, “Well, it’s just this thing we’ve been doing for a thousand years. I don’t know, these things happen. We all just assumed women couldn’t do it…” So I do think that there’s some big, heightened metaphors about feminism, but at the same time, I think there are elements of Santa Claus that, for children in the audience, will just be about Santa Claus.
And there are elements that are about the spirit of charity that happen at Christmas. Something like A Christmas Carol is a total classic, but I watched The Muppets Christmas Carol recently — because I watch it every year — and it really gets me every time, the idea of holding Christmas in your heart year-round. Because there is something nice that happens at Christmas where you feel more connected to people that you don’t know, and people do a lot of charitable giving at Christmas. In some ways, there are elements of metaphor about that spirit in Noelle, in what Santa represents in the movie.
Growing up, what were your Christmases like?
KENDRICK: White. I grew up in Maine, so white in the sense of snow, and I guess also white in every sense because it is Maine. I love Maine but, you know, let’s be real. We had snowy Christmases and there’s a pond near my house that I would hobble over to and skate. And I had to skate for this movie, actually, and was like, “Well, I have skated on a little pond when I was a kid, so I’m sure it’ll be like riding a bike.” It was not like riding a bike. I definitely looked like Bambi learning to walk, the first couple of lessons, but now I miss it because I could just skate over to the director and ask a question and then skate back. It’s a much more efficient form of transportation, really.
A lot of Christmas movies that we’ve seen are very white. This one seems to be way more inclusive and representative of different people of all different sizes, shapes, races.
KENDRICK: I hope so. And let me tell you, we have this newcomer who plays Jake — who’s arguably the second lead — who is my first friend that I manage to make, much to his chagrin, in the real world, as it were. He’s a private detective and he’s played by Kingsley Ben-Adir and he is so phenomenal. I feel like we’re sitting on this big secret, you know what I mean? He’s going to totally explode and I’m like, “We got you first!” He’s done other work but, you know what I mean when you’re like, “You’re going to be big, man.”
You get to sing an original song in this. Is it Christmassy or–?
KENDRICK: It’s Christmassy. It’s just for the soundtrack and honestly, when Marc [Lawrence], our director, said, “My son wrote a song and my daughter is singing the demo and we want to play it for you and see if you want to sing it,” I was really preparing myself to, like, let him down easy. I heard the song and I was like, “If anybody else sings that, I’m going to throw a fit,” because it was so beautiful and I was definitely like, “I’m sorry, these are your children? How is that possible?” So I’m really excited about that.
Noelle is now playing exclusively on Disney+.