Jetpacks, Felonies And Other 'Jingle All The Way' Questions Cleared Up By The Director
It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street – not one of these movies features a single second of Arnold Schwarzenegger punching a reindeer square in the jaw. Luckily in 1996, this cultural chasm was filled by Jingle All the Way, the now-beloved holiday film about one father's agonizing Christmas Eve quest to buy his son the season's big-ticket toy, a Turbo Man doll.
Although loads of people went to see it in 1996, Jingle All the Way had a surprisingly massive budget to recoup, was savaged by critics at the time, and ultimately became regarded as a flop. But these days, Jingle All the Way has been reconsidered to some extent by movie fans, as evidenced by countless revival screenings, a straight-to-video sequel, and even the production of real-life Turbo Man toys for parents to casually brutalize each other over.
A possible reason behind the world's newfound appreciation of Jingle All the Way is that, at its core, it is incredibly subversive. While it was goofy fun for kids in the '90s, those same kids who are now all grown up – some with children of their own – and likely see the story in a totally new light today. The movie is arguably the best depiction of yuletide anxiety ever committed to film. In place of traditional Hollywood schmaltz, we get 89 minutes of unbridled holiday anarchy, a frenzied journey into the absurd heart of American commercialism, with future Governor Schwarzenegger as our guide.
Now that many of us are full-blown adults, we… have questions. A lot of questions. To help us better understand what makes Jingle All the Way – a movie that literally ends with an Austrian bodybuilder whizzing around Minneapolis in a fully-functional jetpack – tick, we spoke with the director, Brian Levant, who also helmed family favorites like The Flintstones and Beethoven, and who has recently authored a new book, My Life in Toys, full of photos and text cataloging his extensive collection of vintage playthings.
According to Levant, Jingle All the Way's initial, not-so-awesome reception seriously damaged his career: "I had never experienced a disappointment on that scale … and it took me a long time to want to devote myself to something so thoroughly again."
Part of the problem was that the movie was initially pitched as a much smaller, $20 million movie with Daniel Stern in the lead role until "Someone had the idea: 'Hey, let's get Arnold and Danny DeVito,'" which would have reunited the Twins stars for the third time. But while Arnold signed on, "DeVito passed." So the movie suddenly starred an action hero, with a salary the size of the original budget proposal, as Howard, the now inexplicably buff dad.
Home Alone director Chris Columbus produced Jingle All the Way and "pushed (the studio) to make the movie for far more money than I think they had ever anticipated … it cost $84 million." A lot of dough for a movie simply about a man trying to purchase a plastic doll – but as Levant told me: "There is a lot that went into padding that budget. $100,000 in cigars, for instance… Chris smoked them, Arnold smoked them, and Jim Belushi smoked them. I had one, it made me dizzy, and I stopped."
As for the more satirical elements, while Levant claims that he was primarily interested in appealing to "younger members of the audience," he also stacked the supporting cast with comedic actors like Sinbad. Had Danny DeVito taken the role, we almost certainly wouldn't have gotten random references to Rodney King tossed into the mix.
It also features Martin Mull, Harvey Korman, Larraine Newman, Chris Parnell, and, of course, Jim Belushi as a sketchy mall Santa Claus hawking bootleg Turbo Man dolls. Is there any greater visual representation of holiday malaise than the scene where Schwarzenegger brawls with a cadre of crooked Santas?
Meanwhile, one of the film's most memorable performances is that of the late Phil Hartman. In the movie's most risqué running gag, Hartman plays a divorcee who's unsubtly stuffing the stockings of nearly every woman in his neighborhood and has his sights set on Arnold's wife, Liz, played by Rita Wilson.
Coincidentally, Levant first met Hartman thanks to another classic Christmas movie (sort of). Years earlier, Ron Howard was looking to "try and write a screenplay the way episodic comedies ran writer's rooms." Imagine Entertainment hired Levant as the "head writer" (along with several other screenwriters, including the Farrelly Brothers) of an Airplane-style spoof on Die Hard called Blow Hard.
According to Levant, instead of Die Hard's bearer bonds, the parody version had thieves swiping baseball cards. "In the story, at the top of this new skyscraper is a dome stadium that was going to open with a great, all-star old-timers game. But it turned out that the old-timers were the ones who were committing the robbery of old baseball cards because they got paid garbage when they were players."
Through a friend who was in The Groundlings, Levant cold-called Phil Hartman and invited him to a script reading for Blow Hard. At the reading, Tony Danza played the Bruce Willis part, Laraine Newman played the female lead, and Hartman was "unbelievably funny" as the Hans Gruber of the story, named "Euro Disney."
When it came time to make Jingle All the Way, Hartman originally auditioned for the role of Myron, the part that ultimately went to Sinbad. While he wasn't right for it, Hartman reluctantly tried reading for the smaller role of Ted, the creepy neighbor, and, as Levant put it: "He just nailed it … we were laughing hard." Several of his lines in the film were not surprisingly ad-libs, Levant's favorite being when he tells Schwarzenegger: "You can't bench press your way out of this one."
Since modern audiences have taken to overanalyzing and theorizing about Jingle All the Way, we felt compelled to run some of these probing questions by the man. For starters, at the end of the film, Howard inadvertently takes on the role of Turbo Man in the climactic Christmas Eve parade, donning the suit, which for some reason, comes with a fully-functional jetpack.
Why would this highly-dangerous, non-existent invention be a part of a children's parade in a movie seemingly set in the real world? According to Levant: "I grew up with Commando Cody … and so I just took it for granted the jetpacks existed. And if I bought it, then why wouldn't anybody else?"
Levant added: "Originally, we thought we would have real flames coming out of it – and we actually built one to test, and soon realized, right away, that it was a bad idea to strap the future governor of California into … basically a bomb on his back. And, so, the flames were CGI."
Then there's the question of the laundry list of felonies that Howard commits throughout the film, which several fans have meticulously cataloged on the internet. Levant said: "Let's remember, it's only a movie… breaking and entering doesn't compare to the crimes they do in The Godfather … or Heat … you know, having a shoot-out in the middle of the street in L.A."
In recent years, many theories have focused on Sinbad's character Myron; some have speculated that Myron doesn't actually exist and is merely a symptom of Howard's stress-induced psychosis. Levant said that this theory reminds him of how, when he was directing Scooby-Doo movies, he was informed that "Shaggy is the only one who can hear Scooby" – but in terms of Myron, he told me: "I admire that thinking (but) I think it's overthought."
What about the speculation that Myron's unseen son, for whom he is attempting to procure a Turbo Man, may not be real? This, too, came as a surprise to the director. But Levant noted that these various levels of analysis are actually nice to hear, given the film's troubled history, saying, "The fact that people delve that deeply into the film is very heartening."
The movie was so "scorned and debased" upon its release that Levant kept the original Turbo Man doll prop – the one Arnold gives to his son during the climactic parade – in a box in his garage like a discarded bowling trophy because he "didn't want to be reminded of the movie." Now, though, he has it prominently displayed in his office "in a lovely plastic case," as it should be.
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