This review is part of a series in which the author watches all of the Ernest movies in order, even though some day he will die.
The $23 million box office take of Ernest Goes to Camp generated just more than a decade of sequels. The first of them, Saves Christmas, is an improvement over its predecessor. There’s still a few things missing (no Rimshot, no Rube Goldberg machines), but this is the first step Ernest takes in full stride. The most significant difference is the reduction in crushing blows and grievous bodily non-harm; the signature Ernest ultraviolence is used as a garnish here instead of the main course. A main course of feelings.
In this installment, Ernest is a taxi driver who crosses paths with Santa Claus, who has flown to Orlando in search of a man to replace him and also discount film production costs. Santa winds up in Ernest’s cab, where they wax sentimental about how much they both love Christmas. In a cut almost quick enough to miss, Ernest opens his glove compartment to reveal that what he’s really saving Christmas from is secularism.
Santa, who must find a replacement before his magic expires, has his twinkling eye set on Joe Carruthers, who hosted a local access TV show for kids until it was canceled, which drove him to pursue mainstream acting roles out of financial necessity. After picking up Harmony, a streetwise valley girl who jumps into the cab to ditch paying a restaurant bill, Ernest delivers Santa to the children’s museum where Joe works. Santa approaches Carruthers, but just before he can get to his pitch, he’s interrupted by Joe’s yuppie agent Marty.
When Santa starts telling everyone he’s Santa Claus, Marty calls the police. Santa winds up sharing a jail cell with the ordinary menagerie of toughs. Ordinary, that is, except for the man sporting this movie franchise’s signature exposed/unexplained midriff.
Ernest discovers that Santa forgot his magic sack in the back of the cab, and must find a way to reunite it with its owner, as well as reunite Carruthers with his destiny before evening strikes and the magic of Christmas expires forever.
Along the way, there are some light hijinx and feels. Santa puts Harmony back in touch with her innocence after years of calling things “mondo,” Ernest drives an out-of-control sleigh through the skies of Orlando, and Joe completes his hero’s journey.
The archetype-driven characters in these movies don’t give their actors much room to breathe, which makes it all the more impressive when one of them manages a few gasps. All the time freed up by not being assaulted by doors, ladders, and buses gives Varney a chance to inject some subtlety into his delivery. “Subtlety” for Ernest basically means speaking like a normal person about one out of every hundred lines.
Of special note is the reappearance of Auntie Nelda, Ernest’s alter ego whose lines always seem like they were written with about three times the care and effort as everyone else’s. For good reason; Nelda is about three times as funny.
Varney is in good company here, buoyed by decent performances from solid character actors. Carruthers (Oliver Clark) and Santa (Douglas Seale) are believable as old guard Good Guys struggling to cope with a culture indifferent to their values. Agent Marty (Robert Lesser) plays their foil perfectly, and steals scenes doing so. Chuck and Bobby (Gailard Sartain and Bill Byrge) tie the plot together with interludes as bumbling shipping clerks trying to make sense of crates full of flying reindeer.
Ernest Saves Christmas isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a bad one, either. The story goes where it should when it should, and doesn’t try to pull more tricks out of its velvet bag than it knows it can get away with. Parts of it, like Harmony’s relentless overdelivery, do chafe, but only badly enough to leave a festive, Christmassy blush. And even if it’s kind of paint-by-numbers, it’s still a better Christmas movie than Love Actually.
Even though Saves Christmas was somehow more critically panned than Goes to Camp, it raised the box office bar even higher to $28 million. Shortly thereafter, the bar fell on Ernest’s head.