With the trees fully naked and the first day of snow behind us, I thought there would be no better time to revisit what my toddler-aged self had always assumed was a Christmas classic: Jingle All the Way, directed by Brian Levant. To my horror, not only had I vastly overestimated Jingle All the Way’s relevance — as none of my friends had even heard of it — I may have also overestimated its quality as just a preliminary Google search of the film reveals it is almost universally panned by both critics and audiences. So I set out to answer one simple question, a question which proved harder to answer the deeper into the film I delved: is Jingle All the Way a forgotten and misunderstood Christmas masterpiece, or was baby me a babbling brainless buffoon?
Jingle All the Way follows Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a well-meaning but forgetful businessman so devoted to the office he forgets to buy a gift for his son. He is then forced on a last-minute Christmas-shopping-themed odyssey across Minneapolis (which as a kid I had always assumed was Manhattan so I guess that’s one point for me being a buffoon) in the hopes of obtaining the holy grail of all Christmas presents: a Turbo Man action figure.
The term “odyssey” is at the heart of what works about Jingle All The Way. Howard’s journey is full to the brim with Christmas-related set pieces. It’s definitely a mixed bag in terms of quality, but the brisk pacing and compact runtime of one hour and 35 minutes ensures that if you aren’t enjoying the current moment, there’s something else right around the corner. Some of my favourite moments include a brawl in a black market toy factory where all the workers are dressed up as either Santa Clauses or elves and a frantic sequence where Schwarzenegger chases a tiny rubber ball through a crowded shopping centre.
The latter scene is nothing special on its own but is elevated, not by Schwarzenegger’s performance, but his mere presence. That’s the case with most of the film's greatest moments. The comedy writing is mediocre, on par with the most generic of late ‘90s comedies, but something about the fact that it’s Schwarzenegger just makes it funny. He has just about the comedic chops you’d expect of an Austrian bodybuilder, but his performance is so bizarre it adds personality to a film which needs as much of it as it can get. Schwarzenegger sticks out in the otherwise banal and at times annoying cast with Sinbad and Jake Lloyd, to name two of the worst offenders.
It’s strange because Schwarzenegger seems like the worst person imaginable to play this type of role, especially considering how the film's big climax hinges on him pretending to be Turbo Man in front of his son. It’s hilarious that the script calls for his son to act oblivious to Turbo Man’s identity even though his Captain America-esque superhero voice has been replaced by the world’s most distinct Austrian accent. But, despite how odd the casting seems, when you step back the film is almost unimaginable without Schwarzenegger.
Take, for example, a trivial scene in which Schwarzenegger is calling his wife to tell her he failed to obtain a Turbo Man doll at a hectic toy centre. To his surprise, their opportunistic neighbour Ted (Phil Hartman), who’s clearly trying to sleep with Howard’s wife, answers. Howard’s wife is in the shower and Ted is eating some of her cookies while Howard frantically tries to get her on the phone. He yells at Ted to “put that cookie down, now!” The way the camera pulls out to show the reactions of passersby tells us the line is meant to be funny. It’s not a clever line, it’s not even a joke, but Schwarzenegger’s cadence is enough to sell it and this otherwise unremarkable scene has become one of Jingle All the Way’s most famous and has even spawned various sick remixes.
I don’t want to brush past Phil Hartman’s portrayal of Ted either. He doesn't get much screen time but his smugness and deep-seated ‘nice guy’ rage are enough for him to steal every scene he’s in. He’s the only person in the cast who matches Schwarzenegger’s energy without being annoying.
Jingle All the Way is not great. In fact, there is an argument to be made that it’s quite bad. The acting is not very good (with few exceptions), the jokes are far more miss than hit, and it is by and large annoying. But there’s just something about Jingle All the Way that makes it feel greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s the Christmas cheer softening my hardened critic’s heart, the myopia of nostalgia or a bit of both, but I’m having a hard time saying anything truly negative about this film. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a Christmas dinner: It’s forced, clunky, annoying and of overall of dubious quality, but there’s just enough of that Christmas magic to make it feel special.