Jingle All the Way is a movie that defies expectations.
For example, as the movie opens on a hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger playing an all-American dad named Howard Langston, you might expect there to be a brief acknowledgement of or explanation forwhy this massive bodybuilder with an Austrian accent is working in an office job in Minnesota. You would be wrong. Later, when Howard finds himself wearing a superhero costume to participate in a holiday parade, you might not expect the costume to be equipped with an ACTUAL jetpack. Incorrect. And when he poses as an undercover cop to a group of real cops, you might expect them to notice that the badge he flashes at them is a plastic toy. Nope!
The movie defied director Brian Levant’s expectations as well. As he explained to me in advance of last weekend’s 25th anniversary screening of the film at the Fox Theatre, he thought it was going to be a hit.
“This was a huge opportunity to do a big holiday release for a major studio with one of the biggest stars in the world,” he says. “We expected to have a hit movie and the hottest toy in the world.”
It was not a hit. Critics called it “tedious and painfully not funny.” One raved, “If there is a bottom of the Hollywood barrel, Jingle All The Way has been gleaned from the filth upon which that bottom rests.” Another insisted that “even the Grinch wouldn’t like this one.”
‘Oh What Fun It Is’
The movie tells the absolutely bananas story of Howard Langston, who forgets to buy his son the year’s most popular Christmas present, a Turbo Man action figure, and sets out to try and find one on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, so does seemingly every other parent in America. It’s a madhouse of people desperately trying to buy Turbo Man dolls at the last minute. He runs into the Santa mafia. He develops a rivalry with a postman gone postal (played by Sinbad). He considers and (to his credit, I guess?) reconsiders stealing from a child. But he does lunge at another child in a ball pit at Mall of America.
In the end, he somehow ends up unwittingly dressed as Turbo Man in the Twin Cities’ holiday parade. Then, he flies around on a jetpack to save his son from what starts off as fake parade villain “evil” but, due to an intervention from Sinbad’s character, becomes actual, real danger. And, obviously, Howard and his jetpack and his unacknowledged muscles save the day.
So yes, it’s cheesy. And it’s wonderful. Because cheese is what Christmas is all about. When the movie flopped, Levant didn’t feel very proud of it. It wasn’t the critical panning that bothered him. As the director of Beethoven and Are We There Yet, he says critics hate everything he’s ever done anyway.
“Damn the critics; I make films for audiences,” he says. “It was the fact that it didn’t perform the way you believed it would, and you question your choices, your abilities and your confidence.”
Levant, an avid toy collector, got to keep one of the Turbo Man action figures that was manufactured for the movie. He tucked it away in a box.
A Second Coming
About 15 years ago, Levant was on a university campus, and small group of people came up to him and shyly asked him to sign their VHS copy of the film. They told him about how their family watched it every year for the holidays. He was stunned.
The film just got bigger from there. There are marathons on television. It’s become an internet meme sensation. This year, a tabletop game based on the movie was announced, and Funko released FunkoPop editions of both Howard and “Howard as Turbo Man.” Levant has them all up display, along with the original action figure, which he pulled out of storage a few years ago when he started to feel good about the film again.
“What started as a bit of a sprinkle has turned into a bit of a flood over the years,” Levant says. “It has found a place in people’s consciousnesses and hearts, and I’m thrilled, truly. Everybody involved with the film has enjoyed our phoenix-like rise from the ashes.”
At the anniversary screening, he offers to “maybe” answer a few questions from audience members after the movie. He seems almost nervous nobody would have questions, like the movie’s cult status is still an illusion that could shatter at any moment. Of course people have questions, and he has answers. One person says the movie was a staple for him growing up in Italy, and asks about which scenes took the longest to get right. Levant speaks about how the parade scene at the end used almost no CGI, and, with an elaborate system of scaffolding, specialized pulleys and 1500 extras, it took an entire month.
Another asks about whether Levant had any theories about why the movie hadn’t done well initially, and Levant mentions how quick the production time was—he estimates it was greenlit just 8 or 9months before it came out. While he doesn’t think he can entirely blame the timing, Jingle All The Way was competing with films like 101 Dalmatians and Space Jam, which had both had years-long marketing campaigns.
“It wasn’t first choice,” he tells me on the phone. “But now, I think, if you were in the video store of life, it is first choice.”
Worth the Wait
One of our household favorite scenes from the movie comes when Howard and Sinbad’s character hear that a local radio station is giving away a Turbo Man doll to the first caller who can name all eight of Santa’s reindeer. They fight so much for access to the payphone that they break it, so they go sprinting down the street to the radio station offices, where their plan is to scream “DasherDancerPrancerVixenCometCupidDonnerBlitzen” into the DJ’s face and then go home with their prize.
When they get there, the terrified DJ has to explain that he doesn’t have a Turbo Man doll in the studio with him. What he has is a gift certificate to go get one later.
“What I actually said,” he explains meekly, “Was whoever won would get a doll… eventually.”
It hits home: It might have taken a quarter of a century, but Brian Levant did get his successful movie, and his Turbo Man doll on display… eventually.