I saw this movie during its original theatrical run in 1998. Even as a an 8-year-old who loved Disney and absolutely everything about Christmas, I didn't really enjoy it. I decided to revisit it through Netflix Instant and what a difference 16 years makes!
The movie centers around Jake, played by young Simba himself: Johnathan Taylor Thomas. Originally from upstate New York, he's now a college freshman in Southern California. He has no intentions of a white Christmas, largely because he doesn't like his new stepmother. Jake cashes in his plane ticket up north in favor of tickets to Cabo San Lucas for himself and his girlfriend Allie (Jessica Biel). Allie also hails from back east and has already promised her parents that she'll be spending Christmas with them. Jake considers going to Mexico by himself until he gets phone call from his dad, who promises that if Jake is home by 6 PM on Christmas Eve, he'll give Jake the keys to Dad's pride and joy: a red 1957 Porsche convertible. Jake agrees and lets Allie know that he'll be able to drive her home after all.
The couple goes to an end-of-semester party. Some jocks are unhappy with Jake because the beepers he gave them to cheat didn't work, causing them to fail a final that they were gonna fail anyway. Jake also sold them some fake IDs that were instantly spotted by the bouncer at the famous Viper Room. They slip something in Jake's eggnog and he wakes up in the desert dressed up like Santa Claus. Allie waits for Jake, but he doesn't show up at the promised time; she gets a ride from another classmate, Eddie (Adam LaVorgna), who has a not-so-secret crush on her.
Jake manages to find his way to a road and hitches a ride with a car full of little old ladies going to a Tom Jones concert. This sets off a National Lampoon's Vacation style cross-country road trip, during which Jake cons and charms his way out of any and all trouble he gets himself into. He also (slowly) begins to realize that there are things in life that are more important than classic luxury cars. In the meantime, Allie is stuck on the road with Eddie and fending off his advances.
Johnathan Taylor Thomas's character Jake is, quite simply, a spoiled brat. It would be easy to take that and go completely over-the-top with it. Fortunately, JTT was smart enough not to play him that way. There's no question that Jake is more than a little selfish and immature, but in a very realistic 18-year-old kid way. Parents introducing this movie to their kids and childless young adults watching it for nostalgia reasons will be able to connect with what Jake is going through and that's what makes it work. Jessica Biel is good as the feisty girlfriend who wants nothing to do with the other guy and you can almost feel the slime coming off Adam LaVorgna's Eddie.
I'll Be Home For Christmas is somewhat edgy for a 1990's Disney family comedy. For example, one member of the Tom Jones fan club apparently tries grope Jake; they end up unceremoniously booting Jake out of their car because the hungover student vomits into one woman's purse. At a Bavarian village tourist trap, Allie remarks to Eddie, "Look, the clock man is sexually harassing the clock lady." There's also the interesting song that a minor character sings to win back his estranged wife. Don't worry if your kids are under 10 years old or so; all that stuff went way over my head when I was 8. In fact, not getting the jokes is why I thought it was stupid.
I'd recommend this for a family gathering because everyone loves Disney and also, this is basically a grade-schooler-appropriate version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. However, shut it off before you get too far into the end credits or you will never get NSYNC's "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" out of your head. For added fun, see if you can spot Disney's clever nod to JTT's voice work as Simba.