This article contains Ernest Saves Christmas spoilers
After hurrying his grandkids off to bed, an elderly man puts the finishing touches on his Christmas Eve presentation. He bounces around the tree, bubbling over with the Christmas spirit until a rustling outside his door causes him to pause. Could that noise be Santa Claus himself? Just as the grandfather allows himself to believe the impossible, a grotesque creature bursts through the door, leading with his extended claws. The grandfather wastes no time, training a pistol on the invader and sneering, “Die, you son of a…”
Unable to say the curse word, the actor playing the grandfather calls cut and the actors reset. It turns out, we’re not watching a horror movie at all, but Ernest Saves Christmas, a Christmas movie with its own set of oddities. The 1988 film stars milk pitchman turned unlikely children’s movie star Ernest P. Worrell, played by Jim Varney. Directed by Ernest creator John Cherry, Ernest Saves Christmas mixes Varney’s Ernest shenanigans with a sweet story about Santa Claus searching for a successor before his magic dries up, ending Christmas forever.
That might sound like a treacly nightmare and, to be honest, I saw this movie in theaters at 10 years old, so I cannot approach it without a bit of nostalgia. But even rewatching the film as a bitter old 40-something, I can’t help but be charmed by its off-kilter sincerity and even Varney’s mugging. Ernest Saves Christmas may not be the greatest Christmas movie of all time, but its unusual way of portraying holiday tropes makes it one of the most enjoyable.
The Santa Plot
Back in the golden age of Hollywood, nobody thought that comedy figures could successfully carry a movie. Thus, Marx Bros. films such as The Cocoanuts or Abbott and Costello’s debut One Night in the Tropics grafted its comedic stars onto existing properties. The result is often kind of a mess, an uncomfortable blending of two genres. But in the best instances, in the classics like the Marx Bros. Duck Soup, something transcendent happens. The anarchy of the comedic plot dovetails with the sincerity of the dramatic plot, pushing all elements to an absurd level.
Ernest Saves Christmas follows this model. On a basic level, it follows Santa Claus on a trip to Orlando, Florida, where he hopes to recruit children’s television host Joe Carruthers. Despite his passion for children, Joe finds himself out of a job and considering taking a role in the Christmas-themed horror movie described above. With his powers fading and Christmas Eve fast approaching, Santa must convince Joe to recover his sense of wonder and choose to help others over a Hollywood career. When Santa leaves his magic sack in Ernest’s cab, the knucklehead must help St. Nick succeed in his mission.
Again, I fully recognize that this is a corny plot. But it somehow succeeds, largely on the strength of its performances. Tony-nominated actor Douglas Seale is the perfect Santa Claus, a man who radiates joy and kindness without ever feeling forced. He’s introduced arriving at an Orlando airport, chatting with a businessman from Toronto who’s come to do some mundane work over the holidays. As the two make their way through the crowd, a little tinkle sounds and children run toward him smiling. But the real evidence of Seale’s appeal comes in the way he interacts with adults, making good-natured jokes with his companion and treating everyone he encounters with kindness. When an exasperated security employee lets him pass with identification reading “Santa Claus,” Santa says with a chuckle, “Thanks, Skippy.”
Likewise, Oliver Clarke gives a warm performance as Joe, an unassuming nice guy who legitimately wants to do the right thing but can’t help but be frustrated by his financial situation. In the aforementioned horror movie scene, Joe throws himself into the role, grabbing his prop gun and sneering at the attacking monster. But he loses his nerve at the curse, forcing the film to cut, Joe explains that he just can’t swear in front of the kids. “It’s nothing they haven’t heard before,” responds the director. “Not from me,” answers a resolute Joe. In nearly any other hands, the exchange would feel pat, like a bit of surface-level moralizing. But Clarke says it with such warm conviction that it plays like someone making a decision based on their own principles, rooted in kindness.
The Ernest Plot
And then there’s Ernest. My years of watching Ernest films as a kid have left me with a permanent soft spot for the guy. But even I can admit that 90% of his schtick is mugging for the camera, pointing his twisted visage toward the audience, and doing broad hijinks. But darn it if he doesn’t land some great jokes in this movie. Some of them involve his usual gags, as when he smooshes his face onto the glass of a building in hopes of getting Santa’s attention.
But others allow Varney to trot out sketch comedy bits, which are extremely effective (in these small doses, at least). In one, he follows the time-honored tradition of dressing like an old lady to portray the mother of Joe’s agent Marty (played by Robert Lesser, who also appeared in holiday classics Die Hard and Christmas Evil). The highlight comes when Ernest sneaks onto a studio lot by portraying a snake wrangler bringing serpents to a horror movie set.
Varney does not forgo the accent or the mugging for this scene. But he finds some strange sincerity in the performance, especially as he dissuades a studio guard from looking through the truck by offering a snake for his son. “I gave one to my boy once,” Varney’s snake wrangler wistfully recalls before going into a mournful revelry. Embarrassed by the show of emotion, the guard lets Ernest pass. “That’s all these horror movie people want,” mutters the wrangler. “Pythons.”
Silliness Saves Christmas
Together, these two plots combine to do what Christmas stories do best. They tell a story about choosing kindness, about unlikely heroes, about miracles overcoming the powers that be.
To be sure, not every part of the plot works. In one scene, teenage runaway Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker) watches in amazement as Ernest pulls magic gifts from Santa’s sack. She ends the scene by shouting gleefully, “It’s him! It’s really him!” But then in the next scene, she channels Dana Scully to express skepticism about the phenomena she just witnessed. Later, Santa comes to Joe with his sack to make one last plea to his potential replacement. When a frustrated Joe proves his disbelief by revealing the sack to be a fake full of feathers, Santa retorts, “I know it’s feathers!” We’re left wondering how he knew, and why he would have brought it as evidence with that knowledge.
These bumps aside, Ernest Saves Christmas embraces the full silliness of Christmas. A goodhearted idiot who bumbles his way through the simplest assignment, Ernest does indeed help Santa complete his mission and even delivers the sleigh and reindeer on time for the changeover to happen. Santa does indeed convince Joe to serve his better angels and take on the mantle of Santa Claus, and even gets a date with a sweet old lady after he reverts to his civilian identity. And it may be cliché, but you cannot help but be thrilled when a bitter businessman has a sudden change of heart when he sees it’s snowing in Orlando.
Ernest Saves Christmas eventually hits all the expected beats of a Christmas movie. But it gets there in such an unusual manner that you can’t help but cheer at the way it breaks the mold, rampaging through plot beats like a screwball driving a team of reindeer through airport security.