Have you ever wanted to see Arnold Schwarzenegger punch a reindeer and Sinbad yell “Rodney King!” as angry shoppers jump on top of him? Then, boy, do I have a holiday film for you!
“Arnold Schwarzenegger tries his best, but Jingle All the Way suffers from an uneven tone, shifting wildly from a would-be satire on materialism to an antic, slapstick yuk-fest.” That is Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus for the 1996 Christmas/product placement movie, which currently boasts a not-so-strong 16-percent score on the site.
Well, I’d like to disagree with all that — except for the part about Schwarzenegger trying his, because he tries. And speaking of trying one’s best, here’s my attempt to defend the legacy of what was once called “heartless and unfunny and as welcome a part of the holidays as traffic and fruit cake.”
Arnold vs. Everybody
For those who don’t know the plot, I would first ask why you’re reading this, but then I’d tell you that Jingle All the Way follows Howard Langston, just your regular Minnesota mattress salesman who happens to look and talk exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The workaholic dad tries to score points with his son by buying him a Turbo Man doll, the season’s most popular toy, which makes the task a bit of a challenge on Christmas Eve. The search includes endless high jinks and, more importantly, countless face-offs for our favorite Minnesotan.
Schwarzenegger is no stranger to showdowns: The man has taken on the Predator, Batman, kindergarteners, and Donald Trump, but he has never faced more adversaries than he does here. Jingle All the Way’s version of the Expendables includes Phil Hartman’s Ted, Sinbad’s Myron, a reindeer, and a ragtag team of Santas (featuring Jim Belushi, Paul “Big Show” Wight, and Verne Troyer). And guess what? He beats them all, no matter if it takes going full Turbo Man or slugging a reindeer straight in the face.
Also, this was Schwarzenegger’s last movie before Batman & Robin, so we really get the chance to appreciate the end of a historic movie run (even if I’m now considering whether Batman & Robin deserves its own defense).
Phil Hartman, a.k.a. the Real MVP
All that being said about Schwarzenegger’s contributions, it’s actually Phil Hartman who’s the real star of Jingle All the Way. In his last film to be released before his tragic death, the Saturday Night Live alum stole more than scenes — he stole the whole damn movie. Playing Howard and Liz’s (Rita Wilson) next-door neighbor Ted, a local Lothario who isn’t as friendly as he seems, Hartman scored a laugh every time he opened his mouth, whether he was shoving cookies in it or getting eggnog thrown all over it.
Upon Hartman’s death in 1998, EW’s Ken Tucker perfectly summed up why the comedian was always so good, and it rings true for his performance as Ted: “His conventional-guy demeanor and deep, hearty voice were his secret weapons: With them, he could momentarily fool audiences into thinking he was the straight man, but then he’d cock an eyebrow and give his voice an ironic lilt that delivered a punchline like a fast slider — you barely saw it coming until you started laughing.” R.I.P.
A Randomly Amazing Supporting Cast
Arnold, Sinbad, Hartman, Rita Wilson, Anakin Skywalker, Martin Mull, Chris Parnell, Jim Belushi, Big Show, and Verne Troyer. Let me know when you find me a weirder, more hilariously random collection of actors. I’ll be waiting forever, so let’s just move on.
An Impressive Amount of Innuendo
If you hadn’t already lost your innocence, then you did by the time you were done watching Jingle All the Way. This is a PG-rated movie about a young boy’s hopes for an action figure to be under his tree on Christmas morning, and yet here’s a list of the very un-PG things that occur in this movie: A Santa reading a porno magazine; Myron yelling “Rodney King!” as he’s attacked by fellow mall-goers; Howard demanding that Ted stay away from his “wife’s cookies”; little Jamie (future Star Wars star Jake Lloyd) saying his mom is “petting Ted”; Myron’s constant bomb threats; Ted going full creep on Liz; Liz getting extremely turned on when Howard reveals himself as Turbo Man; and not only Arnold’s previously mentioned reindeer punching, but his making amends by liquoring up said reindeer. Honestly, I’m impressed, and the people behind this film deserve credit for being able to sneak all that past parents and the MPAA.
So, I’m going to now need you to [Arnold voice] PUT THAT COOKIE DOWN and rewatch Jingle All the Way.