Jack Frost (1998)


I’ve written before about how some movies had a chance at success and just turned out bad, while others were obviously going to be bad from the moment they were conceived. “Jack Frost” falls into the latter category. It might be the best example of it that I’ve ever seen. From now on, when we see a movie that was clearly doomed for failure the instant someone thought of it, we should call it a Jack Frost. For example:

YOUR FRIEND: Hey, do you want to see the new romantic comedy about the girl who falls in love with a lizard, and the girl is played by Tara Reid and the lizard is the voice of Robin Williams?
YOU: Nah, c’mon, that movie’s a total Jack Frost.

The actual “Jack Frost” is about a young boy who is sad that his father has died, and so the father is reincarnated as a snowman, which obviously can only last for so long, whereupon he will have to go away again. And you think: Thanks, universe! Thanks for bringing Dad back just long enough to die again! Oh, and it’s a Christmas movie — because surely there is nothing families enjoy more during the holiday season than watching films about awful tragedies. I know my own family gathers around the TV every Christmas Eve to watch our well-worn copy of “United 93.”

You almost have to admire the stubbornness necessary to make a movie like this. From conception to finished product, movies take months, even years, to complete. With “Jack Frost,” there were surely dozens of people second-guessing the very idea of the movie (to say nothing of its actual screenplay, which is also bad), casting skeptical glances at one another, taking the producers aside for concerned, whispered conversations. (“… and do you really want to be responsible for a movie about a computer-animated snowman terrifying his grieving son?”) Yet through it all, those dogged filmmakers persisted, never pausing to acknowledge that, as sure as snow melts in the springtime sun, this movie was going to be bad.

The title character is, in fact, a man named Jack Frost, played by Michael Keaton. Jack is about 40 and still trying to be a rock star, which is sad. It’s even sadder when you realize the movie’s going to kill him any minute now. His generic blues-rock band is on the road a lot, playing at the kinds of places where generic blues-rock bands are welcome (prisons, dive bars, Bruce Willis’ house, etc.), leaving his wife and son back home in Colorado to miss and resent him.

When he is home, Jack is devoted to his wife, Gabby (Kelly Preston), and their 11-year-old son, Charlie (Joseph Cross), a budding hockey player. Jack gives Charlie a harmonica and teaches him a hockey maneuver and talks about his butt a lot and builds a snowman with him and — what’s that? Oh, yeah. The movie is obsessed with the word “butt.” Jack uses it more than any other character, though it’s a close race. He says it 10 times in the first 20 minutes alone, in such contexts as “You hit me in the butt!” and “Get your skinny little butt in bed!” and “I saved your butt!” Later, when he (spoiler alert) becomes a snowman, he twice references the largeness of his new frozen posterior. What’s with Jack’s fixation on buttocks? I like to think it was actually Michael Keaton’s own fascination, and that he ad-libbed it into the script himself.

(“… and on top of everything else, we can’t get Keaton to quit talking about people’s butts!”)

Then Jack gets in a car accident on Christmas Eve and dies. The end.

No! Not the end! It only feels like it because the movie’s been on for 32 minutes and nothing has happened yet. But no, this is just beginning. Fast forward a year. Charlie is still being a real Gloomy Gus about his dad being dead, and even the bullies who used to throw snowballs at him have lost interest. “He’s no fun to pick on anymore ever since his old man died,” one of them says. Stupid grieving children ruin everything.

But then, one magical night a few days before Christmas, Charlie builds a snowman in his front yard, play’s Dad’s old harmonica, and WHAM-O! Wham-O is the legendary toy company behind the hula hoop and the Frisbee. Great company, great products. But that’s beside the point. The point is, KABLUEY! The snowman becomes quickened with the soul of Jack Frost, contradicting all the world’s major religions and baffling theologians for generations to come!

(“… plus, you’ll be flying in the face of 6,000 years of organized religion!”)

Jack, I have to say, takes being a snowman in stride. He’s more annoyed than anything, and disappointed not to have a penis. (Yep, there’s a quick joke about it.) The snowman is computer-animated (pretty well, too, for 1998), with Michael Keaton providing the voice, which means at least we don’t have to look at Jack’s attempts to be a “rocker” anymore. The earring, frosted tips, and necklace were embarrassing.

We do have to listen to his voice, though, and the snowman version of Jack Frost likes to make jokes, particularly ones that aren’t funny, and particularly when there is no one around and he is speaking only to himself. For example, when his snow-head becomes dislodged from the two snowballs that comprise the rest of his body, Jack says, “Talk about your separation anxiety!” Ha ha, yes. Talk about it indeed! Later, after Charlie has gotten past his initial horror at his dad’s new state of being, the two of them are sledding when Jack says, “You da man!,” and Charlie says, “No, you da man!,” and Jack says, “No, I’m da snowman!” And part of you dies inside.

I should mention Charlie’s reaction to the living snowman. At first, of course, he is frightened beyond measure, and surely more traumatized than he was at his father’s death in the first place. But then snowdad helps him beat the bullies in a snowball fight (being a snowman gives you a supernatural talent for making and throwing snowballs, it turns out), and Charlie warms up to him. He’s still not convinced it’s actually his father, though, forcing the movie to include a scene where Charlie asks Jack questions that only his dad would know the answer to. Bleh. And anyway, geez, kid, what’s your deal? A talking, ambulatory snowman that knows your name makes perfect sense to you, but the idea of it being your reincarnated father is hard to swallow?

Jack goes out of his way to stay hidden from his widow, who naturally thinks Charlie is insane for talking to the snowman in the front yard all the time. (The snowman that is sometimes in the front yard and sometimes parading through town, that is.) Jack says, “She can’t see me like this!” This leads to the obvious question of “Why not?” This question goes unanswered (and unasked, for that matter); the movie assumes we will take Jack’s word for it. Oh, and then, at the end, she sees him like that after all, and it’s OK. So, uh, never mind.

After a few days of father-son bonding, the sun comes out and starts to melt Colorado’s frozen landscape, which landscape now includes Charlie’s dad. I assume this is God’s way of eliminating the grotesque abomination that’s been defying His laws. Charlie takes snowdad up into the mountains to keep him frozen, but Jack knows this is only a temporary solution and decides to call it quits now. He says goodbye and then … sort of … goes away. He doesn’t melt. His spirit simply leaves his snowman body, temporarily revealing itself in its original, Michael Keaton-y form, and disappears into the ether.

The whole point is that Jack never spent enough time with Charlie when he was alive, so now he’s trying to make up for all those years of neglect. A fine idea, except that he only gets a few days, at which point the movie says, “Eh, that’s enough. Charlie’s totally fine now.” Who knew a few afternoons spent with a nightmarish monster who sounds like your father would be enough to get you through the mourning process? The psychologists, along with the theologians, will be studying this for years to come.

— Film.com