(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. In this edition, we go digging for leftover Christmas spirit the sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led holiday hit Jingle All the Way!)

It’s December, and you know what that means. Nothing. Absolutely nothing, as the calendar is an arbitrary construct meant solely to make us think we matter in the universe. It also means regular movie columns sometimes shift their attention towards a focus on holiday films, and we here at DTV Descent aren’t about to buck tradition. (And by we, I mean me.) So this week I’m stoking the fire, sipping some hot chocolate, and checking out the direct to video sequel to 1996’s Jingle All the Way.

The way it usually works here is that a good to great movie gets a poor to abysmal DTV sequel, but what Jingle All the Way 2 (2014) suggests is… what if the original is pretty bad too? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a complete Christmas comedy dud like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and instead actually delivers a couple fun sequences. It has a major weakness, especially with its lead character, and that’s an element that’s actually improved in the sequel. What I’m saying is, all things considered, the DTV sequel starring Larry the Cable Guy might just be on par with the big-screen Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Honest.

The Beginning

Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Long Goodbye) is a busy man. All of his customers are his #1 customer, but that means he doesn’t always have time for his wife Liz (Rita Wilson, The Day It Came to Earth) and son Jamie (Jake Lloyd, Unhook the Stars). When he misses Jamie’s big karate recital, he promises the boy anything he wants to make up for it and what the kid wants for Christmas is a Turbo Man doll. There are only two problems. It’s Christmas Eve, and the dolls are sold out all over town. As the clock ticks down, Howard finds himself in a madcap quest for the only toy that will make his son love him again, and it’s a journey that will bring him face to face with an aggressive mailman, some criminal Santas, an ornery cop, and a neighbor (Phil Hartman, Quick Change) who has his sights set on Liz’s cookies.

The DTV Plot

Larry (Larry the Cable Guy, A Madea Christmas) is not a very busy man. He’s a part-time trucker and part-time dad to his daughter Noel, while his ex-wife is happily remarried to a cardboard box magnate. Larry can’t compete with Victor’s wealth and all that the money has to offer, but when a popular new toy hits the market – a talking bear Noel really, really wants – he sees getting her one as a way to secure her love. It doesn’t hurt that it will also mean he gets to beat Victor at the Christmas game, but riches bring the misguided stepdad the ability to buy up all the bears in town before Larry can find one for his precocious little girl.

Talent Shift

Leading men don’t come much bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while it’s far from his best comedy, Jingle All the Way sees him ham it up as only he can while beating up Santas, shoppers, and Sinbad. The pair are joined by a fun collection of familiar faces including Phil Hartman, Jim Belushi, Martin Mull, Harvey Korman, Richard Moll, Laraine Newman, Robert Conrad, and Chris Parnell. Again, the movie’s a bag of coal, but these talents can’t help but bring the semblance of a smile to your face.

Director Brian Levant has made a career out of delivering mediocre yet profitable comedies like Beethoven (1992), The Flintstones (1994), and Snow Dogs (2002), and he does the same with Jingle All the Way. Writer Randy Kornfield hasn’t had quite the same level of content in his filmography, but he did co-write Eight Legged Freaks (2002), which has to count for something.

As is pretty much always the case the DTV sequel is something of a step down. To be fair, the film cost less than one-tenth the budget of the original, but still… Larry the Cable Guy? Was Carrot Top not available? Mr. Guy must have cost a pretty penny as there was nothing left for the supporting cast, leaving us with mostly unfamiliar faces giving generically heightened performances. I’m not knocking their acting talent as they’re doing exactly what the director and film demands.

Remember the Carrot Top joke I just made? You should. It’s literally right above. Well, you’re not going to believe this, but I made it before looking up director Alex Zamm’s filmography and guess what? His first feature was 1998’s Chairman of the Board – a starring vehicle for freaking Carrot Top! That’s bananas. Seriously, what are the odds? Zamm has since made a career of DTV sequels including Inspector Gadget 2 (2003), Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (2011), and Tooth Fairy 2 (2012) which also starred Mr. Guy, before helming last year’s beloved holiday classic A Christmas Prince for Netflix. So yeah, like the bacteria you picked up in that diner bathroom last week, the odds are you’ve seen at least one of his movies without even knowing it.

How the Sequel Respects the Original

The core story between the two films remains a simple one. A father tries desperately to get the one special toy for their child guaranteed to earn their love and respect, but poor decisions, despicable villainy, and an ignorance of the laws of physics get in their way at every turn. As mentioned above, the sequel’s $5 million budget can’t compete with the original’s $60 million, but what it lacks in reindeer (both live and prosthetic), big names, and bad optical effects in makes up in the heart department. It takes what the earlier film tries and fails to do on that front and actually delivers.

I know. It surprised the hell out of me too.

Schwarzenegger’s character in the original is a harried dad who comes to learn the value of family after a series of mishaps and adventures. It’s basic and something we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the script and short running time (under 90 minutes!) leave little room for nuance and character work, meaning the film goes from full speed “comedic” antics to slamming the breaks on a lesson learned and a heartfelt family reunion. Anything more than a casual glance, though, reveals that Howard is a complete jerk and a dumbass who just gets lucky in the end without any real redemption. Nor is he deserving of one. If he really cared about his family, he wouldn’t be a selfish putz for 80 of the 89 minutes.

The sequel takes a completely different tack with the story, and while Larry is still prone to bad calls, he’s convincing as something Howard never comes close to – a father who truly loves his child. It’s still Larry the Cable Guy, of course, so let’s not pretend I’m praising his acting ability, but his affection feels real. More importantly, the character is putting his daughter first at every step of the way. There’s no need of a lesson in loving your family as he does from the very first scenes. Instead, the lesson here is placed more on the idea that time well spent with loved ones is more important than commercially bought presents. Yes it’s cheesy, and yes it’s all overdone in an attempt to earn laughs and emotional responses, but dammit the reveal at the end manages more heart in one minute than the entirety of the earlier film achieves.

As for the script, Stephen Mazur’s humor is best summed up in a single line of dialogue — “When that elf flipped me, I pooped my pants a little.”

How the Sequel Shits on the Original

Both films are equally unfunny, and the sequel wins in the heart department, but comparing the two as mindless entertainment sees the follow-up left in the dusty snow. The expected budget limitations mean the set-pieces here meant to add energy and fun can’t compete with the ridiculous and effects-heavy whimsy in the original. The hapless dad still gets knocked around quite a bit, but instead of shopper brawls and flying suits it comes courtesy of electrical shocks and mini tidal waves. It is what it is, but it’s lacking anything to compare with the scene of Schwarzenegger facing off against a warehouse full of criminal Santas. The scene is the highlight of the original, and there’s nothing comparable here.

It’s also severely lacking when it comes to the original’s subtext (well, text as it’s far from subtle) regarding not only the crass commercialization of Christmas but also the increasingly aggressive consumers. It’s played for laughs in the first film – ha! a potentially murderous postman willingly putting a child’s life in real danger! – but the idea that shoppers would trample each other in pursuit of a deal came years before the annual tradition of real-world security camera footage showing idiots doing just that. The sequel lacks anything of the sort leaving it a one-note tale of love, family, and all that noise.

Conclusion

If you have to watch a Christmas comedy this month you can do far better than either of the Jingle All the Way films. The first is overly slapsticky and irresponsible, the second is low-rent and forced, and neither is funny. But if you have to watch one for some ungodly reason might I suggest you skip the obvious choice and give the sequel a try instead? It’s not better, necessarily, but it relays the reason for the season far better. (And if you tell anyone I said that I’ll deny it.)

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