Jingle All the Way is that Christmas flick where Arnold Schwarzenegger attempts to transition from action hero to family-friendly leading man, right? Well, no. Jingle All the Way is actually a brilliant satirical film - seriously. Like Demolition Man starring Sylvester Stallone, the movie is remembered as a straightforward film starring a muscle-bound actor. But the anti-consumerism notes the filmmakers hit are spot-on. Movies that are secretly satires rarely tip their hands they’re doing something subversive. Instead, self-aware films like Jingle All the Way play things straight and let audiences decide how they want to view the movie's message.
The '90s were a particularly interesting time for consumerism, with children’s television shows built around selling toys. These programs not only acted as ads for the products but were also interspersed with actual commercials. Jingle All the Way takes this concept and shows audiences the darkest outcome of modern consumerism.
Nothing encapsulates the film's critique of late '90s consumerism better than the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger knocking over Sinbad to gain the upper hand in their mutual hunt for an action figure. Both actors play men who need to realize the hunk of plastic they're fighting over holds little intrinsic value.
These are not happy men. But how accurately do they reflect the mindset of parents in the audience? Even if other parents don't act on the impulse, they might secretly be willing to fight anything that stands between them and their child's fleeting moment of material happiness.
After the Christmas parade is ruined and Jamie (Jake Lloyd) almost falls to his death over a toy, Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finally learns that family is the real gift. Or maybe he never learns this lesson. To earn his son's love, Langston dresses up as his son's favorite superhero and saves him from peril. But this expression of parental love could have come earlier if Langston focused on spending time with his family.
The same goes for Myron Larabee (Sinbad). Early on in the film, he says his wife left him after sleeping with everyone in the post office where he worked except for him. Maybe if he'd paid attention to her rather than acting like an unchecked lunatic all day he could have maintained the relationship.
Jingle All the Way would have played out much differently if the highly sought-after Turbo Man doll was still available in Minneapolis. Because the toy is sold out at every retailer in town, Howard and Myron become embroiled in a ridiculous battle to procure the action figure at any cost.
It almost doesn't seem to matter whether their children love their fathers, or if they see them as absentee parents who breeze in and out of their lives. These dads just want the doll to prove they are better than the other man.
The underlying message of Jingle All the Way is that your worth as a father is based on the gifts you give. Howard and Myron are legitimately bad at being parents. They try their best to provide for their families, but they've turned their modern-day hunter-gatherer mentality into an unhappy lifestyle. Rather than finding a balance between work and home in the way that Howard's wife Liz (Rita Wilson) has, the men have built a solipsistic life in which the world stops spinning if they stop working.
Now that it's Christmas, that worldview has grown to include the gifts they give their children. If they don't provide their children with the exact toys they want, then what have they been working for all year? Are they worth anything if they can't produce one simple, physical item that represents their status as men and fathers? Not in the world of Jingle All the Way.