Ladies and gentlemen I have come here today to praise a Christmas movie from 1996 that, when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is 2020, seems almost alien.
I’m talking about “Jingle All The Way”, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, the kid who would later find infamy as Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace”, and—best of all—the late and sorely missed Phil Hartman in all of his unctuous glory.
Here is a film that represents the worst of Nineties excess and shallowness, and yet still finds some measure of heart and laughs and action. Is it loud, crass and preposterous? Yes. It’s also not greeting card sappy or needy, and for those two reasons alone you won’t find it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime.
Almost 25 years later I still like it and I think I know why. Well, several reasons why. And here they are:
Arnold is great in a comedy that also requires him to be Arnold the action hero. Who doesn’t like Arnold? Sinbad is great as the comic foil. Who doesn’t like Sinbad—well, let’s just say I like Sinbad. And Phil Hartman? I mean, if I have to explain why seeing him again once every Christmas after he was taken from us too soon, you’re made of stone.
The plot, as simple as it gets, finds Arnold and Sinbad battling to be the first to find a Turbo Man action figure after it has long sold out just before Christmas. Think of Tickle Me Elmo or the current clamor to find a PS5 in 2020. And that’s it. Comic hijinks and action set pieces ensue, there’s a ridiculous final battle, and everyone goes home happy.
But that’s just the surface.
I think the reason this imperfect movie speaks to ME in particular is because it’s like a bigger, dumber version of “A Christmas Story”—but only if that classic was told from the perspective of the Old Man needing to find a Red Rider BB gun at all costs. It might be argued the two are companion pieces; one sweet and hilarious and nostalgic, the other a cautionary tale about how consumer culture ramped up from the innocence of Ralphie’s youth to the “put it on my Visa” desperation of the Clinton years.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I had my own holy grail as a kid: the Mattel Intellivision video game console, which was like a much better Atari 2600. I got mine in 1980 and played it all the way through the birth of my daughter in 2011. In fact it was how I introduced video games to her. A passing of the torch just like the Old Man in Ralphie’s story, when he tells the mother that HE had a BB gun as a child. I’m a sap for stuff like that. So I relate to both the Old Man and Arnold, although in different ways.
After all I did score a Hatchimal for Gia several Christmases ago. As soon as I heard it was going to be THE toy that year, I went online and ordered it like two months early. I certainly didn’t want to be battling Sinbad the deranged mailman for the last Turbo Man. I wanted to be the Old Man, so brilliantly played on screen by Darren McGavin. Talk about a hero.
So while a film studies grad student could likely write his thesis about how awful “Jingle All The Way” actually is, I prefer to see it as a relic of a modern bygone era that harkens back to an even earlier bygone era. It’s like a Nineties time capsule. And the crazier and more insane 2020 gets, it’s almost thrilling to remember what counted for bonkers in 1996 (Beanie Babies anyone?) seems almost quaint now.
Give Arnold and Sinbad’s exercise in excess another shot. You could even watch it ironically (it’s so bad it’s good!). But I don’t think you’ll be bored.