How 'Noelle' Puts a Modern, Feminist Twist on the Christmas Classic (Set Visit)

Anna Kendrick, Noelle
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

On the set of Disney+'s holiday comedy with Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Billy Eichner and Shirley MacLaine.

It's the week before Christmas and Santa is dead.

The particulars of the late, great Kris Kringle's demise aren't of immediate importance, especially as the North Pole has a more pressing concern to deal with: His eldest son, Nick, the would-be Santa successor, is AWOL. With the big night rapidly approaching, the elder elves have gathered the entire North Pole at town hall to sort out the mess. At the moment, a Greek chorus, slumped at the back of the room, sings out:

"I'll have a blue Christmas without you." One elf pipes up, "We miss you, Santa!” "And when those blue snowflakes start falling..." The elf woefully cries out, "They're falling like my tears for you!"

And then the door bursts open and Nick, now a tie-dye-wearing yogi, enters, followed by his younger sister, Noelle, and her faithful elf nanny, Polly. "I know I let you all down but while I was away, I learned a couple of things about what it means to be Santa," he tells the bemittened and scarved elves in the room. "It's about understanding. It’s about really hearing people out and making everyone jolly...That's why I know there’s a Santa right here, right here at the Pole.”

It's just not him.

It's December 2017 and Day 42 of filming Noelle at Vancouver Film Studios in Canada. The city itself has gone method for ET's visit and it started snowing overnight. From the outside, the movie's set is little more than a series of nondescript warehouses. Inside, it is a winter wonderland: Santa's suit hangs in the costume department, every surface is littered with ribbons and glue guns and baubles and glitter. Everyone has a runny nose and a parka wrapped tightly around them, but spirits are high.

"It would've been really annoying if we were shooting this in June, but especially this morning, I woke up and it was snowing out and I had Christmas music on," star Anna Kendrick says. "Everybody at the beginning of the shoot was like, 'You're going to be so sick of Christmas clothes and Christmas music,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah? Watch me!'"

Kendrick stars as Noelle Kringle, the Prince Harry to Nick's Prince William. "She's never going to ascend to the throne," producer Suzanne Todd explains. "She just does ribbon cuttings and drinks delicious hot chocolate and collects fashions." Noelle grew up as the pampered princess of the North Pole, while her older brother was groomed to take over the family business.

"Anna was the first person that we went to," Todd says of casting Kendrick. "Thankfully, she said yes, because she's so perfect in it. Anna is so charming and adorable and kind of elfish. North Pole-ish in her own way."

Bill Hader, meanwhile, plays Nick. As the eldest son of Santa, he is in training to inherit the moniker and its responsibilities, only to discover that he's not exactly qualified to do so. He can't tell naughty from nice, for example. He can't fly the sleigh. But now that his father is gone, the world is in need of a Santa.

"One of my daughters was like, 'So, you're going to Santa Claus' house?'" Hader says. "And I go, 'Well, they built Santa Claus' house.' And she went, 'So, they had to go to his house and measure it?' And I said, 'Yeah, they went to his house and measured it.' And she went, 'Wow. That's so cool.'"

The house in question, the Kringle cottage, was previously built on the very soundstage where the town hall now stands. The former was folded away and replaced by the mistletoe stained glass windows, twinkling wreaths and roaring fireplace of the local bureaucracy. Soon, this set will be packed up too, as production moves outdoors to Whistler, where a fully functional North Pole has been built, ice rink and everything.

"When the movie starts, Santa has sadly passed some months before. It's a Disney movie, so you have to kill a parent, right?" Todd laughs. (As for what fate befell Kris, she'd only laugh: "You're, like, eating a lot of cookies and milk, but none of them are dying young of diabetes.")

When Noelle sees that her brother is having a merriment meltdown, she suggests he get away for a bit, clear his head and come back ready to ho, ho, ho. "Unfortunately," Todd teases, "instead of him going for the weekend, he sends back a note, saying, 'I love it here. I'm never coming back.'"

Unbeknownst to their mother, Mrs. Claus (played by the iconic Julie Hagerty), Noelle steals the sleigh and flying reindeer (sans Rudolph, though he was nearly included in the movie) and sets out to find her brother. At Noelle's side is the centuries-old elf, Polly, played in all her pointy-eared glory by the legendary Shirley MacLaine.

"She's a very no-nonsense nanny. Never been out of the North Pole. Does everything for Anna. I like to say that everything Anna is is because of Polly," MacLaine shares. "I think she’s really nice, really sensitive and also adventurous, funny and thank God, not in every scene."

MacLaine is decked out Arizona glam -- a cowboy hat adorned with desert flowers, dangly silver earrings and strings of turquoise jewelry -- as Polly and Noelle's search-and-rescue mission takes them to Phoenix, where Nick has reinvented himself as a yoga instructor.

Back on set, the elder elves are presiding over a contest of sorts, to test the legitimacy of Santa, as Nick, Noelle and their cousin, Gabe, each speechifies on why he or she best inspires a sense of Christmas spirit. Billy Eichner dons a white man bun wig as Gabe, a Silicon Valley tech whiz who wants to bring Christmas into the 21st century and Google-ize and Amazon Prime the art of bringing toys to children.

"I'm actually a Jewish kid from New York who was always obsessed with Christmas, like most Jewish kids. That's probably problematic, but who cares?" Eichner deadpans. "I'm a sucker for Christmas and for Christmas movies and the whole thing. When I was younger, we didn't have a Christmas tree because we were Jewish and I always was so jealous of all of my friends who did. I won't say all Jewish kids feel like that but I know a lot that do. Hanukkah's great, but it's just not the same. There aren't many Hanukkah windows at Saks. So I loved the idea of doing this big, somewhat old-fashioned but from a modern point of view Christmas movie."

The modernization comes by way of Noelle herself, who discovers over the course of her journey that she possesses a particular set of skills befitting Santa. And just because there's never been a female Santa shouldn't mean there couldn't be one. So Noelle may have set out to save Christmas by reinstating Nick as Santa, but perhaps she will be the one to ascend the throne in the end.

It's time for Noelle's big moment, for her to pitch herself to the elder elves and potentially make history as the first female Santa. And director Marc Lawrence calls cut. "And then Anna does her speech," he reels off, "but we're not going to run through that. But everyone is going to be very moved onscreen." Moments later, there's a change of plans.

"Anna, can you do the full speech?"

"Sure, I can do it," she replies right away.

"We didn't want to burn you out."

"I can do it. I'll f**king get all weepie and shit."

"It's obviously a fantasy film and it's a heightened version of systems that are in place, [but] there's this line that's thrown away about like, 'Well, it's just this thing we've been doing for a thousand years. We all just assumed women couldn't do it...'" Kendrick says. "There's some big, heightened metaphors about feminism."

"When they talk about feminism and everything that's going on in the workplace now, they use this phrase called 'unconscious bias,' which is something that happens and it's quiet, although it's insidious. In some ways, what's been happening in the North Pole in our movie prior to this is kind of an unconscious bias," Todd adds. "It's not somebody saying to her, '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."

Noelle's message of yuletide empowerment was especially relevant when it was being filmed in 2017. "It's coming at exactly the right time with all of the pink attitudes and what's happening with women raising their voices about equality in every way," MacLaine exclaims. "But it won’t be out until 2019, so what the f**k?! We’ll probably have -- I don’t know -- some wonderful transgender president or something."

Alas, Noelle is finally streaming on Disney+ this month and remains as timely as ever, whether its toppling of the North Pole's patriarchy foretells changes coming to our real-world government or just inspires any young girls watching that they can grow up to be anything they want to be. Santa included.

For Hader, he's already seeing the impact. "I watch a lot of kids movies and TV shows. That's kind of all I end up watching now," he remembers. "When I told my kids, 'Hey, I'm reading a script now about this woman who, you know, Santa Claus' daughter becomes Santa.' And they went, 'A girl Santa?!' I was like, 'Yeah.' And they're like, 'But does she have a beard?'"

Noelle premieres on Nov. 12 on Disney+.