After the tremendously successful Home Alone - which was produced on a $15 million budget and grossed almost half a billion worldwide - a sleuth of similar holiday-themed comedies followed in its shadow which mixed syrupy sentiment with broad slapstick. 1996's Jingle All the Way is one of these films, but it's also one of the worst. Look, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a good thespian. His acting skills are lacking, and the only reason Arnie became so successful was because he was fun to watch when heavily armed and killing multiple opponents in gory ways. By the early '90s, Arnie's days as a box office juggernaut were ebbing, and - aware that his career had reached a turning point - he began participating in projects that either spoofed his screen persona (Last Action Hero, True Lies, etc.) or were flat-out comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and so on). Unfortunately, try as he might, Schwarzenegger is no comedian. Jingle All the Way is an aneurism of a children's Christmas movie; a pastiche of cartoonish action, juvenile jokes and appalling physical humour.
The Schwarzenegger role here is a workaholic father named Howard Langston, who (in typical hackneyed fashion) has been neglecting his family. Due to this, he's treading on thin emotional ice with his young son Jesse (Jake "Anakin Skywalker" Lloyd). Having missed Jesse's promotion at his karate class, Howard promises his son he'll buy him whatever he wants for Christmas as redemption for his behaviour of late. Unfortunately for Howard, Jesse desires the hottest toy on the market: the "Turbo Man" action figure. Unfortunately, too, it's Christmas Eve when Howard sets out to buy this action figure, and must endure extreme odds to fulfil his son's Christmas wish.
For the majority of its running time, Jingle All the Way bludgeons a viewer senseless with unrestrained slapstick and unpleasant characters. The constant activity keeps the pace brisk, but, to paraphrase basketball coach John Wooden, don't mistake activity for achievement. Every single performance and comedic premise is overblown and amplified, as if the filmmakers intended this movie for viewers with poor vision and hearing. Clever jokes are few and far between, which makes the movie essentially an 80-minute string of brainless physical comedy without any variety. Meanwhile, the pathetic message lying at the core of Jingle All the Way is simple: buy your spoiled brat's love and attack strangers to achieve this end.
Rather than concentrating on either Santa's universe or the sentimental idea of family, Jingle All the Way targets the unsavoury commercialism of Christmas, much like the brilliant Miracle on 34th Street did half a century beforehand. But where Miracle on 34th Street was witty and warm, Jingle All the Way is abrasive and phoney. Admittedly, the premise had potential. Cabbage Patch Dolls created an immense frenzy in the '80s that had parents wrestling in toy store aisles, so it's a terrific idea to satirise this, but Jingle All the Way fails to offer enough expansion of the main joke. Taken by itself, the premise simply lacks the substance to form the basis for a feature-length picture. Thus, the movie seems padded out using repetitive, unfunny slapstick, as if the filmmakers got the go-ahead after successfully pitching the concept, but were unable to figure out how to extend things beyond sitcom length. Consequently, the movie sags noticeably throughout the middle section as the director and screenwriters fight to extend the film's duration.
Early into the film's development, one or more of the film's credited writers likely conceived of something darker. Jingle All the Way shows signs of this, but the screenwriters also tried to make it a conventional family film determined to leave viewers all warm and fuzzy. Thus, these two opposite approaches are constantly at odds with each other. There's a lot of silly slapstick aimed at kids here, but the filmmakers clearly had no qualms about lacing this "children's movie" with gags based on lecherous divorces, alcohol, and - most worryingly - parcel bombs. The majority of the characters are gratingly unpleasant, too: unhelpful store clerks who openly guffaw at Howard's naïveté about the popularity of Turbo Man, department store Santas who are depicted as money-grabbing crooks, and an unrepentantly amorous neighbour (Hartman) who puts the moves on Howard's wife. Even the reindeer are nasty in this one. Howard himself is extremely unpleasant as well. At one stage he stops short of stealing a Turbo Man action figure from under the Christmas tree next door! In essence, the bulk of the movie is snapshot-after-snapshot of two guys behaving in ways that would put the average kid on the naughty list that year - if they didn't land in juvenile prison, that is.
Another tragedy is the fact that the Austrian Oak was given no leeway for the only type of comedy he can handle: tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. Worse, Schwarzenegger in no way fits the role of Howard Langston. It may be amusing seeing the juxtaposition of Arnie and DeVito in Twins, but Schwarzenegger doesn't make sense as a determined family man simply because his career was built on playing ruthless killers. The star's limited range hurts the film, especially when paired with Jake Lloyd who's so shrill that viewers may actually change their minds about having kids someday. At least there are some fun cameos by Robert Conrad as a silver-haired cop, Marin Mull as a timid radio DJ, and James Belushi as a black-market Santa. Even Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons) appears in the extended version of the film.
On the positive side, Jingle All the Way is reasonable for family consumption due to its broad and silly nature (adult content notwithstanding, since it probably won't even register in a child's mind). Kids may well enjoy it (this reviewer did as an 8-year-old) - I acknowledge and understand that. But why can't it offer fun or laughs for adults? Parents forced to sit through this train wreck should stock up on the liquor beforehand. All these years after its release, Jingle All the Way remains a heartless, unfunny Christmas movie that delivers a horrible message. Arnie fans should avoid at all costs.