The Ernest movies are among Hollywood’s surprise success stories. The “Ernest P. Worrell” character originated as a redneck pitchman played by Jim Varney for a series of Nashville-produced ad’s. Ernest was so popular that he quickly began making ad’s for products throughout the country, often produced at director John Cherry’s Nashville home with a hand-held camera. The character became so popular that Varney was invited to take part in a holiday parade. When Varney (as Ernest) received a bigger response from the crowd than Mickey Mouse, Disney executives took notice and offered Varney a movie deal.
The first film, Ernest Goes to Camp, has become a cult classic since its release in 1988 (and also was the final film of Italian-turned-Native-American character actor, Bill “Iron Eyes” Cody). The unexpected success of Camp meant Disney wanted another Ernest film. The follow-up was the charming Ernest Saves Christmas.
For those of you unaware, Ernest Saves Christmas stars the titular redneck character who gets inadvertently sucked into a quest by Santa Claus himself to find a suitable replacement. While Ernest may be the star of the film, the story really does revolve around Santa, played beautifully by Douglas Seale (most famous as the voice of the “Sultan” in Aladdin).
According to this film, the role of Santa is one that isn’t held by one individual, but is passed on over generations. This particular Santa admits that he has held onto the position longer than he should have, resorting to hand-written notes to keep track of who is naughty or nice as his magic continues to fade. The magic is only replenished when a suitable replacement takes over the role. This is quite an interesting idea, and one that was revisited somewhat in another Disney film, The Santa Clause. The difference here, however, is that Santa has to convince his chosen successor of his validity.
This proves to be harder than expected, as the one Santa is eyeing for the position is a former children’s television host, Joe Caruthers, who is attempting to break into mainstream films as a legitimate actor. The kind-hearted Joe seems willing to at least hear the jolly one out, but Joe’s agent, Marty, sees Santa as a senile old man who is getting in the way of Joe’s big break. It’s with the help of Ernest’s convoluted schemes that Santa is eventually able to reach Joe and explain the situation to him.
Meanwhile, a teenage runaway is scraping along by conning her way from place to place. When one of her con jobs puts her in trouble, she crosses paths with Ernest and Santa. The two take her in, with Santa being aware of her situation, but allowing her to learn her own lessons in a genuinely touching side story.
Director Cherry admits that this is his favorite among the many Ernest films made over the years, and its’ easy to see why. Rather than being a series of set-pieces strung together by a thin plot, the idea of Santa actually putting Christmas at risk due to his own selfish desires puts the typically-joyous Father Christmas at a more human and vulnerable level. This isn’t a perfect Santa. He gets hurt. He gets frustrated. He makes mistakes. He even gets angry. Seale’s performance only adds to the magic – you completely buy into his Santa Claus, even at his lowest.
Since he doesn’t have to carry the film all on his own, Varney is free to play with the Ernest character (as well as several other characters), creating some truly funny moments. You definitely have to suspend disbelief at times, but such is the case with this type of comedy – embellishment and exaggeration. Noelle Parker’s runaway has enough attitude to cover up her own vulnerability, which she plays very well.
While this isn’t a beloved classic along the lines of It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, Ernest Saves Christmas nonetheless is a fun, enjoyable 90 minutes of silly humor mixed with a unique and often touching Santa story. If you have Netflix, the film is currently available to streaming. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. Knowhutimean, Vern?