Released: 22 November 1996
Director: Brian Levant
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Jake Lloyd, Robert Conrad, Rita Wilson, and Phil Hartman
Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) is a workaholic husband and father who, after missing his son Jamie’s (Lloyd) karate class graduation, promises to make it up to him by buying him the hottest action figure of the year, Turbo-Man, for Christmas. But, having forgotten to by the toy ahead of time, he must race both across town and against a similarly motivated mailman, Myron Larabee (Sinbad), on Christmas Eve or risk once again breaking a promise to his son.
It’s easy to forget that, amidst all the action and science-fiction movies of the mid-eighties and nineties, Arnold Schwarzenegger also dabble din a bit of comedy. Not all of these ventures were successful, mind you, but it was a decent attempt by the Austrian Oak to showcase some range to his acting ability. Arnold joined the film for a reported $20 million salary, attracted to the idea of portraying an “ordinary man” for a change, and having experienced the difficulty of last-minute Christmas shopping itself. The script, which originated from a screenplay by Randy Kornfield, drew upon the mad rush shoppers faced to purchase some of the most sought-after Christmas toys over the years, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Power Rangers and the much-coveted Buzz Lightyear. Ironically, the film was shot so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to produce much in the way or merchandising for the film, which went on to gross nearly $130 million and received mixed to average reviews at the time. Perhaps because of its bonkers nature, it has become something of a cult classic over the years and a standalone, straight-to-DVD sequel was even produced in 2014 with an entirely new cast.
Jingle All the Way is the story of Howard Langston, a workaholic father and husband who is such a big-wig at his company (which, I believe, is a company that sells bedding and furniture) that he’s working up to the wire on Christmas Eve-Eve during he office party. Though Howard is very much consumed by his work and ensuring that his many “number one customers” are satisfied, he’s not a maliciously neglectful father; I never got the sense that he was a bad Dad or husband, he’s just a cliché mid-nineties businessman whose primarily about the business.
When Howard misses his son Jamie’s karate graduation, he desperately tries to make it up to his son but the only thing that really works is him being honest; by admitting that he screwed up, Howard is able to turn Jamie around and learn about his Christmas wish for a Turbo-Man action figure. Sadly, Howard doesn’t twig to this revelation so, when his wife Liz (Wilson) asks him if he bought the doll when she told him to “weeks ago”, he opts to lie to her to cover his ass and avoid further reprisals. Unfortunately, while Howard is a great liar and a convincing act, he greatly underestimates just how popular the Turbo-Man action figure is. Seriously, this guy is like the Power Rangers on steroids, having a super cheesy television show, comic books, and all manner of merchandise and, despite Jamie clearly being besotted to the point obsession with the character, Howard is too thoughtless to notice that Jamie has greater respect and admiration for a fictional character rather than him before it’s too late.
If there’s a weak link in the film, I’m sorry to say that it’s Jake Lloyd; it’s painful to say it about a child actor who was once so prominent in the industry, and considering everything he went through later in life, but Lloyd is pretty insufferable in the two films I’ve seen him in (three guesses what the other one is…) and even more so here. To be fair, much of this seems to be due to the script as Jamie is quite the spoilt, condescending little brat at times. I get that he’s desperate for his Dad’s attention but, as I said, he’s taking his love of Turbo-Man to an unhealthy obsession at times; however, this just goes to show how powerful and influential television, merchandise, and advertising can be on a young boy since he has based his entire life philosophy and morals on the teachings of a Saturday morning show in place of his inattentive father.
Being a comedy film, much of Jingle All the Way’s success lives and dies on the content of the actual jokes and gags; for the most part, these come from the comedic chops of Sinbad, whose character, Myron, is a troubled mailman who is equally desperate to get his son a Turbo-Man after experiencing a similar let down as a kid. Myron represents a different social class compared to the fairly well-off Howard; Myron is the working class everyman, a man driven to desperate and near insanity by the thankless nature of his job and the pressure of living up to the expectations placed upon him (and all fathers) by television advertising. Because of this, Myron tends to go off on increasingly ridiculous tangents, ranting and raving about the season and his lot in life to the point of hilarity; Sinbad pretty much steals every scene he’s in, chewing the scenery and delivering a performance that is the perfect blend of bombastic and belligerent.
Speaking of scene-stealers, Jingle All the Way also includes a fantastic turn by Phil Hartman as Howard’s overbearing next-door neighbour Ted Maltin; if Ted has a counterpart in the world, it’s Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) as he’s overly polite, super helpful, and can seemingly never put a foot wrong. When Howard is late or misses Jamie’s big events, Ted is there with his video camera; when Howard is too buys to put up Christmas or be at home with Liz and Jamie, Ted is right there. So beloved is Ted that all the neighbourhood mothers swoon over him, openly flirting with him and attracted to how handy and capable he is, but Ted has his sights set on Liz. Interestingly, though, as accommodating and as a nice a guy as Ted seems to be, there are some interesting cracks in his persona: he snaps at his son Johnny (E.J. De La Pena) and Jamie after burning his fingers when watching over them and delivers a very icy quip to Howard after he wrecks his house. Ultimately, though, Liz is somewhat repulsed by Ted’s advances and he receives his comeuppance when Howard upstages him in the film’s finale.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Howard constantly runs afoul of Police Officer Alexander Hummell (Conrad) in a recurring gag in the film; Hummell pulls Howard over and causes him to miss Jamie’s graduation, then gives Howard another ticket when he accidentally reverses into his police bike, and responds to the radio station’s call for help when Howard and Myron burst in in a desperate attempt to win a Turbo-Man. This results in one of the best, and most cartoonish, scenes in the film when Myron threatens the cops with a mail bomb that turns out to actually be real. Conrad delivers a very dry and sarcastic performance, which makes for some fun exchanges between him and Arnold.
Jingle All the Way is quite the madcap film, with a near relentless pace as we follow Howard on his desperate search for a Turbo-Man. At every turn, he finds nothing but empty shelves or units of Turbo-Man’s weird bear/tiger sidekick, Booster, crazed fellow shoppers, and overworked, underpaid, jaded retail staff. I’ve worked in retail at Christmas time and I can say that I fully understand the attitude of the staff Howard encounters as shoppers go absolutely ape-shit at Christmas time, literally clambering over each other to get at products, and it’s only gotten worse over the years as Black Friday sales have been extended to an entire week! Still, you can make the argument that Liz should have known that Howard couldn’t be trusted to buy the doll and should have picked it up herself, since she’s much more attuned to her child’s needs, but then we wouldn’t have the movie now, would we?
Amidst Howard’s dire quest, he ends up in some really weird situations: there’s the uncomfortable moment where he chases a little girl through the mall to get a lottery ball and is attacked by rightfully concerned mothers, for one thing, and his encounter with the mall Santa (Jim Belushi). Santa turns out to be one of a number of Christmassy crooks who sell knock-off toys from a warehouse at a criminally inflated price and, when Howard tries to get his money back, a massive fight ensues between him and the Santa’s (including Paul Wight, better known now as the WWE’s Big Show, and Verne Troyer). This sequence is another highlight of the film thanks, largely to Belushi’s memorable performance; he’s not in the film for longer than a cameo but he makes an immediate impression once he shows up and you almost wish he could have had a large role in the film’s events.
Of course, the biggest and most ridiculous scenario Howard finds himself in is when, after being chased by Hummell, he ends up being forced into the Turbo-Man suit for the “Wintertainment Parade” when the organises mistake him for the replacement stunt man. In the process, Howard not only finally gets his hand son the Turbo-Man doll but ends up in an elaborate and overly cartoony fight with Myron, who disguises himself as Turbo-Man’s arch-nemesis Dementor to steal the toy. This leads to a Myron chasing Jamie up a fire escape and across rooftops and Howard inexplicably activating the actual, fully functional jetpack built into the suit to rescue his son and defeat Myron. It’s a massively over the top sequence that is, in many ways, at odds with the generally more grounded, if wacky, antics that have followed but it certainly makes for a memorable finale in which Howard learns to appreciate his family, Jamie gifts Myron the Turbo-Man doll, and everyone ends up in a better place than they originally started (…except for Myron, who ends up in prison…).
Jingle All the Way is far from the best Christmas movie and is definitely one of the weaker films in Arnold’s impressive resumé; it’s a schmaltzy, over the top cringe fest of a festive comedy with some really weird cartoonish moments, some dodgy performances, special effects (especially noticeable in the finale) and line delivery from Arnold and Lloyd, and all the clichés you’d expect from a film of its kind. And yet…there’s something about it that I find unironically entertaining. Nostalgia helps, of course, since I grew up watching this film, as does the festive nature of the movie and the feelings of yuletide joy it inspires within me but, even disregarding those obvious aspects, Jingle All the Way is a wild, but entertaining, ride with some amusing moments and exchanges that really bring it up a notch. Not only that, but the film’s excess actually contributes and plays into the overall plot concerning consumerism and Christmas mania, which remains as relevant as ever, meaning there’s plenty of different elements at work in the film to appeal to kids and adults. Plus, you know…it’s a Christmas movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger so a certain amount of cheese is to be expected but you can certainly find worst Christmas movies out there.
What do you think to Jingle All the Way? Is it a Christmas tradition of yours or do you prefer another Christmas movie; if so, what is it? What did you think to the performances of the actors? Do you enjoy seeing Arnold playing against type or do you think he should stick to what he’s best known for? Have you ever had to face last-minute Christmas shoppers? What was the hot Christmas toy when you were a kid? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to check in next Saturday for another Christmas movie review!