When it comes to the Christmas films, there is no sheep blacker than the Arnold Schwarzenegger caper Jingle All the Way. Repeat screenings on terrestrial television every December have built the film enough momentum to undeservedly barge its way into the seasonal cinematic canon, and year after year countless viewers are subjected to its bleak portrayal of the Yuletide holiday. The film sees workaholic father Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) racing across town to buy Christmas’ hottest toy, a Turbo Man action figure, for his son Jamie (Jake Lloyd). It is violent, mean-spirited, and devoid of any Christmas cheer.

Or so one would think. It’s nearly impossible to make a Christmas film without hitting at least one soul-stirring, heart-warming moment that resonates with audiences. Surely Jingle All the Way is no exception?

The film does in fact have a well-obscured, heartfelt beat. Once you get past the consumerist hellscape, the blunt violence, and the tremendously unfunny gags, you’re rewarded with a brief, but affecting glimpse at the heart of the most depressing Christmas film around, even if the full extent of its soulfulness is most likely unintentional. But to unpack exactly how Jingle manages this, there are a couple things we need to understand.

Firstly, the film is reportedly a satire on Christmas consumerism, and never has satire been so toothless. Jingle came at a time where the demand for must-have Christmas toys, such as Buzz Lightyear or Cabbage Patch Dolls, created a feedback loop of hysteria where parents would break into violence at shops. It’s an interesting lens to look at Christmas through, a more cynical take on the traditionally jolly season. 

Unfortunately, Jingle approaches the subject with staggeringly little nuance. The performances are excruciating and excessive, and the violence between desperate shoppers feels a lot more impactful than a family comedy deserves. Of course, a film making fun of the frenzy of Christmas shopping is bound to feature these elements, but Jingle fails to ever pin down exactly why this chaos is breaking out, choosing instead to just aimlessly revel in it. At one point, Howard’s buddy/rival Myron (Sinbad) edges on the fact that they’re all victims of predatory corporations, but he quickly descends into an unhinged rant about his ex-wife and chokes a nearby stranger, immediately dissipating any societal criticism. 

What’s even more frustrating is that Jingle can’t commit to its central treatise of lambasting consumerism, and ends up celebrating the culture it’s meant to be criticising. In the film’s climax, Howard finds himself dressed in a Turbo Man costume in the Christmas Eve parade, and picks Jamie out from a crowd as the recipient of a Turbo Man doll.

A smarter film would utilise the storytelling rule of ‘wants versus needs’ – Howard wants to get a Turbo Man doll for his son, but he needs to become a better father, pay attention to his child’s needs, and take a more active role in his life. The film should have ended with Howard unable to get Jamie the toy, but demonstrating his commitment and love to his son in a more genuine, meaningful way. 

It’s obvious how terrible a father Howard is. He fails to stack up against Turbo Man’s values of trust and honesty, resulting in Jamie idolising the fictional hero more than his dad. At no point does Howard reflect on how low his life has become, that he’s forced to buy his child’s affection with a toy. Granted, it’s somewhat respectable that Howard is so clueless and disconnected from 90s consumerist culture that the urgency to buy a Turbo Man has completely slipped past him, but it’s not because he’s boldly resisting capitalism, he just doesn’t pay attention to his son. Jingle is not a redemption story, but rather a story where one man struggles to do the bare minimum.

These two aspects, the weak parody of consumerism and the terrible parenting, collide together in the film’s one heartfelt moment. At the parade, Jamie falls from a collapsing Christmas decoration, and Howard uses Turbo Man’s jetpack to fly up to catch him. “Thanks Turbo Man,” Jamie says. “I knew you’d save me.” Jamie’s hero replies, “You can always count on me!” Only by adopting the guise of a fictional superhero can Schwarzenegger finally be there for his child. Jamie’s fantasy has been brought to life, his dad has become a superhero. In this moment, Turbo Man is not just a capitalist invention to protract more money from impressionable youth, he has become imbued with love, he stands for something, he is truth. 

What? That’s it? Arnie becomes a symbol of rampant consumerism, the day is saved by the existence of a soulless product, and this is meant to be heart-warming? Yes. Remember, ‘heartfelt’ doesn’t mean exclusively happy. In fact, this beat is loaded with melancholy.

How many times have we made our parents feel inadequate for not getting us what we wanted for Christmas? How often were we convinced that we desperately needed, rather than just wanted, a toy we had been marketed? 

Howard is a bad father, sure, but the problem isn’t exclusively with him using products to show Jamie he cares, it’s also with a society that tells these children they need these toys to have their wishes and desires made valid. When Turbo Man saves Jamie, he feels special, chosen, loved. But at a cost.

Because in this moment of fatherly love, Jingle posits that Turbo Man is a necessary catalyst for healing Howard and Jamie’s relationship. Father and son are overjoyed at being reunited, but it is a capitalist mechanism used to bring them together, and therefore we’re left anxious that this union won’t last.

This moment is soulful because it’s unintentionally tinged with a deep regret that things didn’t turn out better, a bitter nostalgia for the time where our parents would do anything for us and we thought the world of them. We’re now more like our parents than we are like our childhood selves, and that means we think more critically about how we were raised. At some point Turbo Man will be thrown away, and Jamie will be left with memories of Howard. Will he be forgiving?

Getting the toy would not have saved Howard’s soul, it doesn’t resolve the aching chasm that has formed between father and son. But the expectations society imposes on Howard, that his son’s happiness is dependent on the products he’s marketed, is an unfair one. Capitalism is lying to Howard and Jamie by promising them their relationship will be repaired through buying Turbo Man, and the system is profiting off this lie. Father and son are left unaware at how hollow their joyful resolution really is.

Giving presents is great at expressing how much we love someone, they shouldn’t be the only way to prove that someone is worth caring about. Be kind to those who love you, and tell your parents you think they did alright.