Ernest Saves Christmas, like all the other Ernest movies made before 1995, was one of those perennial favorites when I was a kid. Sometime in my adolescence, I got it into my head that Ernest was a kid's thing only and decided I was too old to watch any of those movies again. Worse: it was one of the few franchises that I implicitly understood to be terrible.
Regardless, Steph and I watched Christmas on a lark the other day, and I was astonished to find that it's not actually all that bad. Some of it is even borderline good.
Mostly this is thanks to Jim Varney, who was such a spectacular physical comedian that he could milk every last drop of comic potential from the basest of slapstick gags. I was kind of amazed to find out how well his performance held up - I can't say I was doubled over with laughter, but I dug him. Ernest's a fun guy to watch. What can I say?
He's also a pretty nifty data point on the evolution of kids' icons. You can chart a direct line of descent from him to Spongebob Squarepants - they are virtually the exact same character, except that one is animated and the other was live action. There are even arbitrary cuts to close-up shots of Varney twisting his face into whatever dumb face came to mind at the moment.
Of course, just like Spongebob, the enthusiasm and over-the-top manic stupidity can wear thin if you're either in a bad mood or just generally a bitter asshole, so I can see why a lot of people would dismiss Ernest as a knee-jerk reaction.
I can't go so far as to say that Ernest Saves Christmas is a good movie, unfortunately. Although Varney is fun, the movie forces him to take a backseat to its plot around minute 50 or so. The shift is jarring and noticeable - it suddenly becomes this dull and saccharine slog about Santa and the magic of Christmas and blah blah blah. It's the kind of simple-minded sugar that's charming and funny when Ernest does it, but tedious when anybody else does it.
To put it another way, the first half of the movie is like when your goofy uncle does that Bugs Bunny impression that always made you giggle as a kid, and you're like, "Hey, he's still got it!" And then the second half is like when your dad tries to do the exact same thing, but since he 1) doesn't get the voice right, and 2) is your dad, you'll just politely tolerate it until he lets you leave the room.
Still, I kinda feel like this was a bit of a Christmas miracle. Movies that I adored as a kid rarely hold up when I watch them twenty years later. Even at its worst, Ernest Saves Christmas was still tolerable. I'm actually tempted to check out some of the latter day Ernest movies, the ones that everybody "knows" and makes fun of, but that nobody's ever actually seen.
So now it's time to ask a tough question: Africa or the Army?