25 Years Ago, ’Jingle All the Way’ Marked a Turning Point in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Career
Parents shopping for Christmas presents for their kids this holiday season might find a surprising toy in their local Walmart. Towering over the usual assortment of six and seven inch Marvel Avengers, Star Wars Jedis, and WWE wrestlers, stands a `13.5 inch red and gold hero with electronic lights and sounds. This particular figure hasn’t been available since 1996. For the first time in 25 years, Turbo Man has returned.
The timing is intentional — 2021 is the 25th anniversary of Jingle All the Way, the holiday comedy that introduced Turbo Man to the world. In the movie, Turbo Man is the hot new toy that every kid wants for Christmas. Little Jamie Langston (a pre-Phantom Menace Jake Lloyd) is one such kid, but his father Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is so busy with work that he puts off Christmas shopping until the very last minute. By Christmas Eve, Turbo Man is sold out everywhere. With the clock ticking down to the big day, Howard sets off on a frantic hunt for a Turbo Man.
Howard’s quest takes some outlandish twists and turns — by the end of the movie he is performing in a Christmas parade while dressed as Turbo Man — but its premise was drawn from the real-life frenzies that seem to happen every few years around particularly popular toys released around the holiday season. The hunger for Cabbage Patch Kids dolls in the early ’80s was so ferocious, for example, it set off full-fledged riots in some stores.
That news report could have been the blueprint for a similar scene in Jingle All the Way, where a free-for-all breaks out in a toy store where a mob of parents — including Howard and Sinbad’s Myron, a mailman perpetually on the verge of going postal — chase after the last Turbo Man in the city limits, which had just been sold to an old lady. The film plays the Cabbage Patch Riots for laughs, with Myron knocking Howard down with his mailbag and Howard driving a remote-controlled car into Myron, sending him flying ass over teakettle.
Jingle All the Way’s combination of Christmas sentiment and grown men getting hit in the groin for laughs was clearly inspired by Home Alone, which opened in theaters a few years earlier and used the same formula to become one of the most financially successful comedies in history. The two films also share a key creative figure: Chris Columbus, who directed Home Alone and produced Jingle All the Way.
The main difference between Home Alone and Jingle All the Way is that the former was told from the child’s perspective, with little Macaulay Culkin defending his home from a pair of bumbling burglars, while the latter focuses more on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father character. As a result, Jingle All the Way is a strange children’s movie. While it’s filled with broad physical comedy, the key kid character is barely involved, and the primary focus is instead an exasperated workaholic dad’s increasingly desperate search for this toy. So it features a protagonist that children don’t relate to, with goal they wouldn’t have much interest in. (Speaking from experience as a father of two, kids don’t care how hard or how easy a toy is to get. Your effort is irrelevant to their pleasure. They just want the toy.)
Sure enough, Jingle All the Way was not as big of a box-office hit as Home Alone, earning just $129 million worldwide compared to Home Alone’s $475 million. But if the subject matter didn’t make perfect sense as a wacky kids movie, it did make sense for Schwarzenegger at that point in his career. In fact, Jingle All the Way acts as the capstone to a whole phase of his acting work from the early and mid 1990s where he played one heroic father after another trying to save or improve the lives of children.
These “Family Protector” movies begin in earnest with 1990’s Kindergarten Cop, where Schwarzenegger plays a more stereotypical action hero — an unstoppable cop — who slowly morphs into a cuddly kindergarten teacher as part of an undercover operation. In the process, he woos a fellow teacher, and becomes a surrogate father to her young son. With the surprising success of Kindergarten Cop, that sort of role — the burly yet empathetic stand-in dad — became a staple of Schwarzenegger’s throughout the early ’90s. In Terminator 2, he is sworn to protect (and inadvertently learns to be human from) a young John Connor. In Last Action Hero, fictional movie cop Jack Slater becomes partners with a precocious film fan who uses a magic ticket to enter the world of the movies.
Schwarzenegger played more traditional fathers too, like in True Lies, where his Harry Tasker is a master spy whose family believes he’s a humble computer salesman. Fatherhood is also at the center of Junior, a very strange kind of spiritual sequel to Schwarzenegger’s Twins. Once again teaming with Danny DeVito, they play a pair of scientists who figure out how to impregnate men, and make Schwarzenegger’s character the first test subject.
The shift towards all these parental figures was surely personal for Schwarzenegger, whose own children were mostly born during this period. The subtext of most of these “Family Protector” movies — and the main text, in a couple of cases — is the question of whether a macho action hero could become a responsible father and loving husband. That split between Schwarzenegger the badass and Schwarzenegger the good dad is often made literal in these films, with Arnold taking on dual roles or playing characters with multiple identities. In Last Action Hero, for example, he plays both Jack Slater the fictional movie character, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood movie star who plays Slater. In the scene below, the fictional Slater saves the real Arnold and they briefly interact.
Jingle All the Way’s Howard plays the usual Schwarzenegger familial tension out in reverse. Instead of a warrior learning to love peaceful domesticity, Howard begins the film as an ordinary businessman and winds up dressed like a superhero who rescues Jamie from a fall by flying to the rescue with a jetpack. With that, Howard — who has been distant and distracted by work — realizes the importance of his family and Jamie realizes his dad is way cooler than any toy. Jamie gives his Turbo Man to Myron and they all live happily ever after.
Interestingly, that upbeat ending would be the last of Schwarzenegger’s career for a long time. Starting the next year, the “Family Protector” motif gave way to a slew of movies where Schwarzenegger played characters who let down their loved ones. In End of Days, Schwarzenegger plays a depressed cop whose wife and daughter were murdered. In Collateral Damage, his wife and son die in a terrorist attack and he travels overseas to get revenge. Even in the absurd Batman & Robin, Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze turns to a life of crime to help find a cure for his wife’s mysterious illness (while, yes, making an absolutely absurd amount of cold-related puns).
The turn from crusading father to paternal screwup seemed to come out of nowhere at the time, and continued that way right up until Schwarzenegger left Hollywood to become the Governor of California. Most of the films he made after returned from his time in public office have been similarly tinged with regret, or loneliness, or abject failure. (See Maggie, Sabotage, Aftermath, and even Terminator: Dark Fate.)
To the best of my knowledge, Schwarzenegger has never publicly explained this dramatic change, at least not beyond statements that he generally felt like he wanted to try something different at the time. But in 2011, news broke that Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with his family’s housekeeper some 15 years earlier. His son Joseph was born in October of 1997, just a couple months after Batman & Robin kicked off that wave of Schwarzenegger movies where he played men who’d let down (or even destroyed) their families.
Schwarzenegger says he didn’t realize Joseph was his son for a number of years, and there is a possibility Schwarzenegger’s move into these darker roles is an enormous coincidence. Still, it lends a fascinating subtext to Jingle All the Way, one of the last times he played a happy husband with a thriving home life, and a guy who’s biggest issue at home is he can’t find the he toy his son wants. Think about that on Christmas as you unwrap that Turbo Man doll waiting under the tree. Unlike in the movie, they are apparently not that hard to find.
Jingle All the Way is currently streaming on Disney+ and is also available for free on YouTube with ads. Sign up for Disney+ here.