These days it may be considered a campy classic but back when it was first released, Jingle All The Way was hardly a Christmas hit. Unlike its much sought-after maguffin, director Brian Levant couldn’t seem to give his festive family comedy away when it arrived in multiplexes in December 1996. Just two years earlier, he’d brought The Flintstones into live action territory and now he was swapping Bedrock for binge-buying to tell a cautionary tale about the perils of last minute Christmas shopping. However while his story may have been all-too-relatable, it’d be decades before it fully connected with viewers.
Written by Randy Kornfield and punched-up by Home Alone-helmer Chris Columbus, Jingle All The Way saw Arnold Schwarzenegger deliver perhaps his broadest comedic turn to date. He starred as Howard, a workaholic father determined to get his son Jamie (Jake Lloyd) the must-have toy of the holiday season – a Buzz Lightyear-eque Turbo Man doll. Unfortunately, every parent in the world has the same idea and when he crosses paths with world-weary postman Myron (Sinbad), the duo end up fighting it out to bag the perfect Christmas gift.
“I think the story of Jingle All The Way is sort of a Christmas miracle,” chuckles Levant, reflecting on the movie’s unlikely legacy as it turns 25. “It was a film that was reviled critically. We never landed that knock-out punch with the audience – but over the years I’ve seen a sprinkle of affection turn into a thunderstorm,” he smiles. “Something’s happened and I don’t know whether it’s just the generation who grew up with it clinging onto a memento of their past – but Jingle All The Way has entered a nostalgic area in people’s hearts.”
Perhaps this is unsurprising given Levant’s directorial expertise. Known for creating family-friendly blockbusters like 1992’s St Bernard comedy Beethoven, it was the wholesome idea of a father desperately trying to connect with his son that initially drew him to the project. “I had a father who wasn’t too attentive,” admits Levant, “so when I became a parent I was always coaching teams and bringing my kids to set – but you always saw so many kids who suffered from parents who weren’t looking at them when they needed to be looked at. Everybody who’s a workaholic has to figure out what’s important – and I think we did that well in the movie.”
Jingle All The Way also placed action-icon Arnie into the world of comedy, a genre he’d dabbled in before with 1988’s Twins and 1990’s Kindergarten Cop – but not to this slapstick degree. “[20th Century Fox] wanted to reunite Arnold with Danny DeVito as Myron but while Arnold wanted to do it, DeVito didn’t,” reveals Levant on a failed return to the Twins dynamic. “We had to find a suitable opponent for Arnold and when Sinbad came into read, he brought something we weren’t expecting: a very sharp, improvisational style. He’s a big guy too, so he wasn’t afraid to grapple with Arnold,” laughs the director. “This seemed like more of a fair fight.”
Levant gave his stars carte blanche to lean into the comedy – and they did – with Schwarzeneger even trying his hand at off-the-cuff improv. “We did a lot of Arnold mugging,” laughs Levant, ‘but if you’re making a big, over-the-top movie, he’s got to react. He can’t just play it stoic – and he had fun doing it.” Meanwhile, Sinbad – then at the top of his comedy career – was having equal fun off-set during the film’s Minneapolis shoot. “He had a great time hanging around with Prince, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. I’d be like ‘What did you do this weekend?’ and he’d say ‘I went to Prince’s house’. I’d say ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I want to go to Paisley Park!”
The movie also marked one of the first roles for a soon-to-be Jedi: “What I liked a lot about Jake Lloyd was he was sweet,” says Levant on his decision to cast a future Anakin Skywalker. “He looked like he could be Arnold’s son and he played the drama well, even the stuff where he didn’t like his father.”
Then there was the film’s other star – Turbo Man – and for a mega-collector like Levant (seriously, just check his Insta), creating this make-believe hero was a dream come true. “We get to design a superhero with a contemporary latex suit? What a joy this is gonna be!” he says, remembering the moment he first heard of the task at hand. The only problem? His team’s designs looked a little too much like every other superhero.
“Finally, I brought in Ben Edlund who created The Tick,” continues Levant, detailing his expert-led workaround. “He took a swing at it alongside Tim Flattery, an amazing concept artist who’s done everything from Thanos’ glove to Batmobiles. We came up with a contemporary latex suit that was kind of a cross between a concorde and a 69 Cadillac with rims and lights. We threw all this together and created the ultimate new hero,” he grins. “Then we realised he looks a lot like Iron Man…”
Audiences didn’t seem to mind. Cut to 25 years later and fan-love for Turbo Man remains strong. Funko even released their own take on Arnie’s super-suited alter-ego – further proof of Jingle All The Way’s unlikely cult-movie status.
“My movies are there to make families laugh and have a good time and to let parents share in their children’s joy,” explains Levant. “What’s even more rewarding is the people who grew up with the film are introducing it to their children. People are rediscovering it and it has become, I’m not to say a classic, but I’ll say a holiday classic,” he smiles. “You get lucky sometimes and with Jingle we didn’t feel lucky when it came out but now we feel very fortunate and grateful. It warms my heart.”
Jingle All The Way is available on Blu-ray now.