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The Dark Underbelly of ‘Jingle All The Way’

6 min read
Filmhounds Magazine

Brian Levant's 1996 has become a mainstay in many households when it comes to the Christmas movie setlist. On the surface, it's a fun family comedy with slapstick humour, a drunk reindeer and Schwarzenegger zooming around the Twin Cities in a full live-action cartoon come the final act. For kids, it's all about a cool toy and the hijinks that ensue as a Dad tries to get the hottest toy of the Christmas season for his son. For the parents and adults watching though, it is a satire that speaks to the darker truths of the Christmas season. Family friendly fluff this ain't. Well, at least for the next few hundred words anyway.

From its very beginnings, Jingle All The Way was designed to satirise the chaos and dehumanising nature of the mad consumerist impulses that fuel the Yuletide capitalist machine. The story of a father's pursuit of a toy on Christmas Eve is one that stems from genuine experience. Screenwriter Randy Kornfield was struck with inspiration for the idea after both seeing news footage of mad holiday shoppers storming a toy store, and the tale of his in-laws trying to find a Power Rangers action figure for his son one Christmas in the early 90's..

Producer Chris Columbus drew on his own experiences trying to find a Buzz Lightyear action figure as well in his uncredited rewrite, an experience I know my own parents went through too when trying to get me a Woody doll for my birthday in the late 90's. They too were met with dead ends, empty promises, and empty shelves (although I don't think they went as far as trying to steal it from the neighbours house, and setting it on fire in the process). Columbus even said at the time of release in an interview with Daily News of Los Angeles that he has always been “attracted to the dark side of the happiest holiday of the year”, and Jingle All the Way makes no qualms at trying to hide this fact.

In an age where superheroes are the most dominant figures of popular culture, the story of a parent having to get the latest superhero toy that his kid is obsessed with has never been more relevant. Heck, if Turbo Man was real and I was a kid, I'd definitely be annoyingly desperate for that action figure with the arms and legs that move and the boomerang shooter and his rock'n roller jet pack and the realistic voice activator that says *five* different phrases including, “It's Turbo time!” (Accessories sold separately; batteries not included). There's Turbo Man comic books, Turbo Man breakfast cereals, Turbo Man pyjamas, you name it. Kids can't escape him, and therefore neither can their parents.

The film's relevance has also only continued to grow when it comes to the behaviour of shoppers, particularly those at this end of the year. Scenes of Black Friday shoppers storming department stores have only increased since 1996, and they more than echo the moments in the film that show mobs of shoppers desperate for a lottery ball to win the chance to buy a Turbo Man action figure at double the price (the law of supply vs. demand of course).

But the real heart of darkness of the film lies in the two warring fathers played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. Schwarzengger plays Howard, your run of the mill, absolutely jacked, mattress salesman who is so consumed with his work that he has ended up as a negligent father and husband. Sinbad plays Myron, an overworked postman who, like Howard, is on the hunt for a Turbo Man on Christmas Eve in order to win the affection of his son. We predominantly follow Howard's turmoil, with Myron often being made out to be the bad guy getting in the way of Howard achieving his goal and making sure he doesn't disappoint his son, Jaime (Jake Lloyd), yet again.

But for Myron, the situation feels much more desperate. He's not someone who can rely on the clearly privileged lifestyle that Howard's successful business grants him (thinking of making a move into the mattress game myself). The relationship between Myron and his son is not particularly developed, beyond Myron sharing his own tales of woe of when his own father didn't get him the hot Christmas toy back when he was a kid. Howard sees Myron as a possible future for Jaime, which frankly says more about Howard's self-centred ways than Myron himself.

Myron is the character who is the most aware of the hamster wheel that he and Howard are running in, simply a part of the constant momentum of maintaining the status quo of capitalist society. Sinbad, who apparently improvised most of his dialogue, brings the satire front and centre with such insightful rants as ”We are being set up by rich and powerful toy cartels… they spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements and use subliminal messages to suck your children's minds out!” Myron is the guy who brings in the dark reality of not just consumerism, but systematic racism and the dangers of civil servants being overworked, with references to Rodney King and mail bomb scares. A little tonally strange amidst the cartoonish family movie fun? Absolutely. But it underpins the point that the film has a darker intention than that of a fuzzy Christmas comedy. It is particularly driven home by the fact that the film tries to coat Myron's story in the thin veneer of a happy ending. With Jamie giving Myron the Turbo Man action figure he ‘won' at the parade, Myron is grateful and says that it'll make his son very happy. But he is also being led away in handcuffs for tying up an actor and endangering the life of a kid, so there's a strong chance he's not going to be with his son come Christmas morning, or even for sometime after that.

It isn't a much happier ending for Howard, and I'm not just talking about that post-credit scene where it becomes apparent that he's also forgotten to get his wife, Liz (Rita Wilson), a gift (seriously, this guy). He lost from the very beginning. His whole mission is built on the idea that the only way to win his son's affection is through buying him things, and judging by the amount of toys and possessions Jaime has, Howard has had to apologise this way a lot in the past. You may be saying ‘but Jamie doesn't even want the toy come the end', but that is only because the only way his father has managed to gain value in his eyes is because he has literally become Turbo Man. Howard has had to ultimately sacrifice his body to the very symbol of capitalism that he has been chasing throughout the whole film. Now, his son has an even more unattainable expectation and image of him, that of being a rock'n roller jetpack wearing superhero who regurgitates the catchphrases he hears on TV. I doubt he even got to keep the suit.

A lot of this reading of the film is very much done with tongue firmly in cheek. But the darkness that sits underneath the family festive wrappings of this Christmas movie is the main reason why I think the movie continues to have an enduring appeal. It works as a fast paced and colourful movie for kids, and also operates as a movie of holiday season chaos that many parents can likely find something to relate to within. That, and we get really funny lines of Schwarzenegger demanding Phil Hartman not eat his cookies. That it can also manage to work as a pretty effective satire about the dehumanising nature of consumerism is frankly a Christmas miracle.

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