ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988)
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This light, sweet and fun Christmas comedy may be one of the most underrated Christmas flicks around. Flick has the late Jim Varney starring as his popular Ernest P. Worrell character, this time a cab driver who has a very special fare in his cab…Santa Claus (Douglas Seale)! A man claiming to be Santa Claus is in town looking for recently fired children’s TV show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark). It seems Santa is ready to hang up his red boots and hat and Joe is the perfect replacement. Things go askew and Santa winds up in jail, his magic sack stolen by precocious runaway, Pamela (Noelle Parker), who wants to be called Harmony Starr, and Joe balancing both the offer to be St. Nick and a horror film role, leaving only one person to right it all and save Christmas…the bumbling Ernest!
While the film’s story is nothing new or special, the script by Ed Turner and B. Kline is imbued with loads of heart and Christmas spirit by director John R. Cherry III. It’s the little touches that really make this work, like children recognizing Santa right away, despite being surrounded by doubting adults and two bumbling airport storage clerks (Gailard Sartain and Bill Byrge) dealing with crates containing Santa’s reindeer and sleigh. There are also a pair of Santa’s little helpers (Buddy Douglas and Patty Maloney) who come to get Santa out of trouble and Santa getting a cell full of inmates to join along in Christmas carols. Cherry also seems to restrain Varney’s over-the-top, motor-mouthed handyman just enough to keep him from getting tiresome and Ernest’s sincere love for Christmas, also comes across nicely. The flick has a lot of fun scenes…you know Ernest is getting behind the reins of that sleigh…and the characters all are appealing save for Robert Lesser as Joe’s slimy agent, Marty, who is supposed to be a jerk. It all works well and is filled with holiday spirit and charm, with a tone that is not too childish as to alienate adults and not too adult to bore the kids.
Another reason this works so well is the cast. Varney has his Ernest character balanced well between his babbling monologues, legend in his own mind ego and child-like love of Christmas. The bumbling Ernest also gets to don a few disguises to spring Santa from prison and help Mr. Claus convince Joe to saddle up as jolly old St. Nick and it’s fun to watch Varney have a good time with it, which the comedian obviously is. Douglas Seale makes the perfect Santa. A somewhat naive and innocent view of the world, yet with a passionate love for Christmas and a ‘never give up’ spirit when it comes to people. He is not overbearing, which is all the more fun when he gets the most unlikely folks in the Christmas spirit. A charming actor. Noelle Parker is pretty and feisty as rebellious teen “Harmony”. She and Varney work well together and she even gets in on the disguise fun with her co-star. The character works well as the troubled teen who has a grudge against Christmas, but is slowly won over by the spirit of the holiday. Oliver Clark is also solid as a man trying decide between a possible movie career, or believing the fantastic notion that this old man is really who he says he is and that Joe is destined to be the next Santa Claus. The rest of the cast are fine and fun as an assortment of eccentric and cartoonish characters in support. The whole cast seem to be having a good time and it translates to the audience.
This is a fun holiday flick that may have gotten overlooked by some of the more popular classics, but really deserves to be recognized for it’s spirit and charm. It’s an entertaining movie that makes good use of Jim Varney’s classic Ernest character in just the right doses and has plenty of Christmas feel despite it’s Florida location. It’s story of Santa in trouble and Christmas in peril is nothing new, but pulled off nicely here with a lot of heart and zero pretensions. It’s cast gets the tone and has a good time and along with John Cherry’s directorial touch deliver a fun and spirited Christmas comedy that is perfectly balanced for kid and adult alike.
3 Christmas trees.