Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

I’ve previously discussed how, as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch any of Jim Varney’s Ernest movies. My mom thought they were “too dumb” and bared me from renting them. (I would eventually catch up with “Ernest Scared Stupid” and consider myself something of a fan.) This put me out of the loop with kids my own age. I can recall a class mate of mine talking about how amusing “Ernest Saves Christmas” was. Of course, as with many old kid’s flicks, a fine layer of nostalgia is required to enjoy them. Without ever seeing “Ernest Saves Christmas” as a kid, there’s really no reason for me to own it.

In this incarnation of Jim Varney’s lovable simpleton, Ernest P. Worrell is working as a cab driver in Miami. During an unseasonably hot December day, he picks up an old man claiming to be Santa Claus. Mr. Claus says he’s developing a memory problem and is ready to pass the mantle of Santa to someone new. In this case, a beloved local kid’s show host whose program was recently canceled. Due to Santa’s forgetfulness, he leaves his magical bag in Ernest’s cab. Teaming up with a teenage runaway, Ernest works to return Santa’s magical bag to him before its too late to save Christmas.

If anything can be said to make the Ernest movies worth seeing, it’s Jim Varney’s indomitable comedic energy. This is on display in “Saves Christmas” as well. An early scene has the character’s wild driving pushing a passenger into catatonia. When equipped with Santa’s magic bag, an amusing montage follows of the dunderhead removing increasingly odd items. While visiting Verne’s Christmas party, we’re treated to a manic first-person perspective of wires getting pulled from the wall. Since Varney liked to stretch his acting abilities, Ernest also dresses up as an old woman and a mush-mouthed snake wrangler in the course of the film. It’s super silly stuff but Varney’s shenanigans are infectiously fun. 

As the title indicates, there’s really no doubt that Ernest is going to save Christmas. Yet the script does a weirdly good job of upping the stakes throughout the story. First, Santa has to retrieve his missing magical bag. After a number of roadblocks are overcome, such as a brief stay in prison, the missions changes. Now Santa and friends must convince the kid show house to accept the position as the new Claus. This includes talking him out of his starring role in a Christmas themed horror film. (Which includes a bizarre cameo from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.) After he’s convinced, yet another magical object is withheld from Santa Claus. This time, his sled goes missing minutes before Christmas Eve begins. It’s not elegant or anything but the script should be commended for keeping things moving at such a pace.

If Jim Varney’s goofball comedic energy weren’t the secret weapons of the “Ernest” series, their utmost sincerity had to be it. Like many Christmas flicks, the film’s themes resolve around belief. Ernest’s sidekick in this one is a teenage girl named Harmony. A runaway, she doesn’t have much use for Christmas cheer. Throughout the story, she steals Santa’s bag, hoping to pull a million dollars out of it. Of course, she comes around before the end. More interestingly, Santa Claus himself has a crisis of faith as well. Before convincing the kid show host, and after loosing his bag, it looks like Christmas really is over. A talk on a park bench with a Magical Black Man changes his mind. It’s pretty cheesy but weirdly effective. Some actual thought was put into this.

“Ernest Saves Christmas” is pretty clearly a low budget production. Most of the scenes are devoted to characters racing from one location to the next, the magic that happens being primarily of the off-screen variety. The most elaborate special effect in the early half revolves around the flying reindeer, which is illustrated with an upside down shot of the deer walking across a ceiling. I suspect money was being saved for the final act, where Ernest zips around the world in Santa’s sleigh. While the humor before this point was often goofy, the movie crosses over into outright shrill at this point. The sequence goes on and on too, the filmmaker obviously eager to get the most out of the crude effects.

Why Do I Own This?: Mostly because I enjoyed “Ernest Scared Stupid” and “Ernest Goes to Jail,” two delightfully dumb motion pictures that I own in a triple pack. (The third film in that set is “Ernest Goes to Camp,” a more dumb and less delightful film.) After coming upon “Ernest Saves Christmas,” I decided to give it a look as well. The movie is a totally harmless bit of kid friendly fluff. It managed to make me laugh a few times, which is probably the most an adult watching the film in 2016 can hope for. It didn’t encourage me to seek out “Slam Dunk Ernest” but I don’t regret owning the film, goofy as it is. [7/10]

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