I’ve been watching Ernest films every few months all year, so of course I couldn’t let December go by without taking a look at John Cherry’s contribution to the season: Ernest Saves Christmas. Released in 1988, it’s the second film starring Jim Varney as Ernest, the know-nothing know-it-all. The title should leave no surprise as to the heart of the story; what may be a little surprising, however, is that Ernest isn’t the one who endangers Christmas in the first place. No, that’s actually Santa Claus himself, played admirably here by Douglas Seale.
In this movie, Santa Claus is a title and position passed on every hundred years or so. Santa’s powers start to fade as time goes on, and can only be renewed by passing them on to a successor. The current Santa has left the decision for too long, and has to pass them on before it’s time for Christmas Eve’s annual run, or the magic of Christmas will be gone forever.
Even the big guy puts things off until the last minute.
The man he’s settled on as his successor is recently-canceled local children’s show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark). Joe is a natural fit for the next Santa. He somewhat looks the part, he’s good with children, and he has a sense of wonder and imagination — as well as a strong sense of politeness. Clark does a great job of portraying a congenial children’s show host, and it’s easy to picture him playing Santa Claus himself, which goes a long way to making the film’s premise work. Of course, things are never that simple. Joe doesn’t believe Santa Claus is who he says he is. Worse, he’s got another job lined up. His slightly-sleazy agent Marty — played adeptly by Robert Lesser — has landed Joe the lead in a feature film: Christmas Slay. Despite Joe’s misgivings about the language and violence, he’s slated to be the hero in one of those strangely-common Christmas monster movies… the man who would be Santa is essentially going to be everything Santa isn’t. As long as he shaves his beard and dyes his hair.
How dumb does a premise have to be to look silly compared to an Ernest movie?
It is, of course, up to Ernest to help Santa with his mission and smooth out the numerous bumps along the way that come from insisting you’re Santa Claus in 1980s Miami. Also along for the ride is teenaged runaway Harmony (Noelle Parker), who has to learn a few lessons about life and good will and all those good feelings associated with Christmas. Parker was 16 during filming, and as such is very believable as a teenager who isn’t old enough to be out on her own but is old enough to think she is; young enough to not know how to handle things but old enough to be jaded. Part of the plot, naturally, is her coming to realize that the Christmas magic she’s seeing is real. Interestingly, even the child-like Ernest doesn’t believe Santa is the real thing at first — but he’s a quick convert once the magic sack is discovered.
This takes some industrial-strength skepticism to ignore.
Being an Ernest movie, there’s a lot of comedy in the film. Some of it’s the usual silly slapstick, and is pulled off as successfully as in Ernest Goes to Camp. There are also a fair number of funny sight gags, and some situational humor that works very well. Santa Claus in jail leads to a few funny scenes, the conversation between Santa and an oblivious businessman in the beginning is witty, and the scene where Gailard Sartain and Bill Byrge call animal control to deal with a troublesome delivery is hilarious. And, of course, there’s Varney as Ernest bungling along tripping over things, wrecking things, mangling phrases and pretending to be funny characters.
Naughty? Nice? Numbskull.
And yet I think that even people who don’t normally appreciate Ernest P. Worrell might enjoy this as a Christmas film. Ernest is the title character, and naturally he gets a lot of screen time, but in a lot of ways he’s taking backstage to Santa Claus. As such, while the film features a lot of Ernest’s humor, it doesn’t rely on it entirely to make an entertaining film. There’s enough of Ernest to make the film funny, but not so much that it feels like there’s nothing else to it. There’s a bit of heart to the film, and if Harmony’s character arc is a bit trite and typical, it’s balanced out by watching Joe gradually realize that the big spotlight might not be for him.
Ernest Saves Christmas has the humor and timing of the first Ernest movie, and couples it with a Christmas story that would be fairly good even without that humor. It’s worth saving some time to watch it.