Robin’s Underrated Gems: Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

You’ll notice that I’ve spent Christmas week devoting all my attention to “Robin’s Weird Christmas Movies” instead of “Robin’s Underrated Gems”. That’s probably because there just don’t seem to be that many underrated Christmas movies around. After watching a Christmas movie, people generally love it or hate it. If a Christmas movie is even remotely good, it’s bound to become a beloved holiday favourite, but if it’s flat-out terrible (like Ben Affleck’s Surviving Christmas or the Jim Carrey version of The Grinch), it will remain universally despised forever and nobody will ever jump to its defense. However, there is a small percentage of holiday flicks that are not disliked, but generally aren’t listed among people’s all-time favourite Christmas movies. While I may be destroying all my credibility by coming to the defense of this film, I have to admit that I have a real soft spot for Ernest Saves Christmas. I was in the target age demographic when the Ernest P. Worrell phenomenon began, so as a kid, I really enjoyed the likes of Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Needs a Kidney… oops, wait, that last one was only on The Simpsons! Of course, watching them now as an adult, some of the Ernest movies have not exactly aged like fine wine, but Ernest Saves Christmas still holds up surprisingly well for me. Call it childhood nostalgia if you want, but I still enjoy popping this one in every Christmas.

Even though Ernest Saves Christmas is made to appeal primarily to kids, the movie does have some surprising touches of cleverness that make it enjoyable for adults. In this film, Ernest (Jim Varney) works as a taxi driver in Orlando and he winds up picking up Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) at the airport. It turns out that this particular version of Santa has been doing the job for over one hundred years, but his magic has started to wear off, so now it’s time for him to pass the torch to someone else to take over the Santa Claus role. Santa’s candidate is a local children’s TV show host named Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark), but of course, grown adults aren’t exactly going to respond well to crazy old men claiming they’re Santa Claus, so Joe’s agent has Santa arrested and put in jail. To make Santa’s matters worse, he accidentally leaves his magic sack in Ernest’s taxi. In this movie, Santa’s sack doesn’t contain toys, but nuclear crystal balls that can be turned into toys with Santa’s magic touch. Ernest and a teenage runaway named Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker) realize that they have to return the sack to Santa, get him out of jail, and help him pass his job on to Joe. If the new Santa does not leave in his sleigh by 7:00 on Christmas Eve, the magic of Christmas will be destroyed forever! Of course, Ernest’s plan relies on him assuming a bunch of wacky disguises like this one.

As silly as they may be, I must admit that some of those scenes of Ernest in disguise are still pretty damn funny to me today! Love him or hate him, you have to admit that late, great Jim Varney was a very gifted physical comedian who was willing to do almost anything to garner a laugh. No matter how juvenile Ernest’s antics might have seemed, Varney just exuded a sincerity and likability that made him so much fun to watch. Now, it goes without saying that Ernest Saves Christmas is not a movie for bitter cynics or the “bah! humbug!” crowd. Corny holiday movies are made simply to get their audience into the Christmas spirit. On that level, Ernest Saves Christmas succeeded for me way back in 1988 and it still succeeds for me today. It’s funny to think about how differently I view the film 22 years later. When this originally came out, I still believed in Santa Claus and just could not understand how Joe Carruthers and most of the other adult characters were willing to just brush Santa aside and allow Christmas to be destroyed forever! Of course, watching it now, it makes more sense that all these people would think Santa is batshit insane and want him locked away. I think one of the main reasons Ernest Saves Christmas still works pretty well is the delightful performance by British actor Douglas Seale as Santa Claus. You couldn’t see Santa portrayed as a more genuine and lovable individual than he is here. One of my favourite bits in the film is when Santa sneaks onto the set of a movie that Joe is filming, which he thinks is titled Christmas Sleigh. To his horror, Santa soon realizes that it’s actually a B-movie about a killer alien called Christmas Slay! I wonder if this is where Santa’s Slay got the inspiration.

To see how essential Douglas Seale is to making Ernest Saves Christmas work, just go to the 5:30 mark of the preceding clip and watch his monologue about why he needs to pass along the Santa Claus torch even though he loves the job so much. He delivers his lines with so much sincerity that it’s almost impossible not to suspend your disbelief and get caught up in this hokey Yuletide storyline. Ernest Saves Christmas does find a nice balance between delivering a heartwarming Christmas message and providing a lot of funny slapstick involving its title character. Look, I’m not going to pretend Ernest Saves Christmas is some sort of holiday masterpiece. It’s corny, sentimental and filled with juvenile humour, and if you don’t like Ernest P. Worrell, this movie probably isn’t going to convert you into a fan. But the film does contain some genuine laughs and a lot more clever ideas than it needs to, and its heart is most definitely in the right place. Like I said earlier, Christmas movies sometimes just need to be judged from a different angle. If they put you in the Christmas spirit, then they’ve successfully done their job and are worth watching every year around the holidays, no matter what their shortcomings. Ernest Saves Christmas does have its fans, but it is not considered a beloved modern Christmas classic like A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Elf. However, it is a lot better than you’d expect it to be, which is enough for it to qualify as an “Underrated Gem”.

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