FREEZE THAT FRAME: Unwrapping That Harmless Christmas Package in Jingle All The Way
Jingle All The Way is a 1996 holiday film about a busy father trying to buy a much-in-demand toy for his son before the big day arrives. A critically ravaged film, it is considered by some to be a Christmas traditionally classic.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few particularly unexpectedly popular toys had manufacturers scrambling to fill shelves as parents rushed stores, sometimes engaging in fist-a-cuffs to get their mitts on Cabbage Patch Kids and Power Ranger action figures. Stories then made headline news every holiday season about which toy would trigger the chaos that year, and so it was that a screenplay came to be and a comedy film rushed into theaters.
Jingle All The Way starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad and was written and filmed in an attempt to satirize the rampant consumerism of the Christmas season, focusing on the plight of two dads who wait too long to buy gifts for their kids and so spend the entirety of the story desperately racing through the city to hunt one down. Unfortunately, it forgot to be satirical. Or funny . . . but it does have energy. Sort of. Kind of. Not really.
Filmed mostly in and around the Mall of America, it tells of Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger), a successful mattress salesman who has little time for his family, most notably, his 9-year-old son Jamie (Jake Lloyd of The Phantom Menace fame). To redeem himself, Howard pledges to fulfill Jamie’s biggest Christmas wish, getting a real Turbo-Man action figure, based on the (fictional) television show. But whoops, he didn’t realize that every single other person in the known universe was also buying one, and so when he gets to the store, is told they’re all out as throngs of shoppers crush to get whatever they can.
Along the way. Howard runs into an on-duty postal worker Myron Larabee (Sinbad), who is in a similar predicament, and so naturally, the two become competitors in trying to get a Turbo-Man before it’s too late. Their escapades involve the local police, led by Officer Alexander Hummell (Robert Conrad) and well, a showdown dressed as the superhero and his nemesis during a Wintertainment Parade, complete with jetpacks and boomerangs.
Directed by Brian Levant, Jingle All The Way is a live-action cartoon, with absurd moments of over-the-top action and ridiculous pratfalls that are squarely aimed at a very young audience, and yet the unnecessary violence, crude, opportunistic behavior, and shallow message taint any hope of making it a worthy family film. There’s a lot that goes wrong here, with Schwarzenegger’s stilted acting and Sinbad’s over-reaching to get laughs toping the list, but it’s also really bland with average effects and lifeless direction. Amazingly enough, an un-related straight-to-DVD sequel was produced (starring Larry the Cable Guy) eighteen years after the original that follows the premise pretty closely. It’s actually worse than the first.
But let’s talk about a moment in Jingle All The Way that deserves a closer look. At one point in the story, the men hear that the KQRS radio station is having a Turbo-Man competition, but when they get to the studio, learn they can only get a gift certificate, not an actual doll. This prompts them to crash the sound booth and attack the DJ, Mr. Ponytail Man (Martin Mull), which once again gets Hummell and his cops on the job. Trapped in the building by a squad of closing police, the men are about to get shut down. Now, let’s Freeze That Frame:
In the hallway, Howard breaks from Myron, who gets surrounded by uniformed cops, all pointing their guns at the disheveled postal worker. Howard is immediately stopped by Hummell, who cuts him off in the stairwell, bringing him back to Myron, who now has the cops’ attention. He’s pulled a wrapped gift from his letter bag and claims it is a homemade explosive device, adding that because he works for the post office, obviously he’s not stable (referencing a disturbing trend at the time where more than 40 people in nearly 20 incidents were killed by angry postal employees).
The police believe him and so he sets the package down after they drop their guns. Holding on to a fake detonator, the bluff works and he escapes into a conveniently-open elevator as Howard rushes off himself, leaving Hummell and the circle of inept police standing over the box. Hummell then, touting his years of service on the bomb squad, examines the gift and confidently tells the boys in blue they’ve been duped and tears the wrapping off, only to have an actual bomb full on explode right in his face. Wait, what?
Not far away, Myron hears the explosion and stops only to comment about what a sick world he lives in where people would actually mail a bomb. He then gallantly rushes back to help those in need, caring not about the legal consequences of his earlier actions. Just kidding. He ignores them and runs away because mailing a bomb is sick but not sick enough stop to see if anyone needs assistance. Meanwhile, outside, Howard also hears the boom, and since he’s the real hero of the story, he naturally pushes aside his obsessive quest to buy a piece of plastic in order to brave whatever horrors lie ahead, trying and save lives caught in the blast. Okay, so I’m kidding there, too, but honestly, you really should have seen that coming. What Howard does do is make an “uh?” face and move on. Cue audience laughter. The movie doesn’t have time to deal with potentially permanently maimed police officers wounded in the line of duty when they’ve got a father who must show his son that true love comes from the celebration of capitalism to tend to.
So yes, a lot has changed in the 20 years since Jingle All The Way. Our sensibilities for one. A ‘joke’ like this is uncomfortable at best these days, distasteful at worst, as bombings have become high profile incidents that are naturally, nothing to laugh about. The film might be forgiven for the insert, but it’s still cheap and a curious lesson to teach children.
About that: Yes, this is meant to be silly. Hummell looks like a Wiley W. Coyote cartoon after one of his ACME contraptions went haywire and yes, there were A LOT of bombs in those cartoons, too, but there is a difference, and if you’ll indulge me some digging, research reveals that young viewers can discern the difference between animated characters’ actions and reality, but have more trouble separating truth from imagination when they are presented with images representing reality, such as human characters in a movie. With a bomb. Perhaps giving Hummell that Looney Tunes look is meant to draw a circle from one to the other, yet even that opens other doors. But let’s not think only about children.
The problem is that the film only ends up condoning the very thing it tries to rail against, showing that this kind of behavior yields a win, and better yet, if you do it by being excessively violent (with kicks to groins, especially), you’re going to be a hero (Howard literally ends up in the Turbo-Man costume flying to the rescue). Hooray for confrontation.
Okay, so this is a Christmas movie. There’s no point being a Scrooge and looking too deeply at what is essentially a light-hearted film designed to be a goof, but that said, there’s much better out there, and a moment with a bomb in this “family film” is a clear reminder of that. Still, Robert Conrad is a real sport. If only he’d held up a little placard in his hand that said, “Fire my agent.”