Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Ernest Saves Christmas”

Our ‘Christmas Countdown’ begins with a selection from deep within the Touchstone vault. 1988’s Christmas comedy Ernest Saves Christmas brings Jim Varney back to the screen as lovable bumkin Ernest P. Worrell. With some wit and innocence Ernest has the chance to save Christmas and restore some faith to a runaway teenager.

The Plot

It’s December 23 and Santa (Douglas Seale) has just arrived in Orlando, Florida to recruit a new Santa Claus. After hailing a cab driven by Ernest (Jim Varney), Santa proceeds to the Children’s Museum of Orlando to meet Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark). A runaway teenager named Harmony (Noelle Parker) hitches a ride with Ernest and Santa. After dropping Santa off at the museum, Ernest and Harmony discover they have Santa’s sack, but can’t locate him when they return to the museum.

Santa has been arrested by the police thanks to Joe’s agent.  When Ernest and Harmony learn about Santa’s predicament, they masterfully spring Father Christmas from the slammer. Ernest hatches a plan to help Santa try and convince Joe that he is perfect to take over the job. Harmony leaves with Santa’s sack, and on Christmas Eve, Santa is left sitting in front of the Children’s Museum in Orlando hoping that Joe will show up to assume his role, and Harmony will return with his magical sack.

Meanwhile, Ernest is trying to spring Santa’s sleigh and reindeer from customs, with guidance from some elves. Only minutes to the 7:00 p.m. deadline Ernest is desperately trying to fly Santa’s sleigh to the museum and save Christmas. Joe, Santa, and Harmony are all waiting for Ernest, but will they make it in time to save the day?

Cinematic Compliments

Jim Varney is hilarious in this delightful Christmas tale with a heart of gold. Ernest seems perfect as a cab driver which allows Varney to shine behind the wheel of the yellow cab. Unlike other Ernest films, Ernest Saves Christmas seems to be the most down to earth and cohesive story in the series. Varney’s performance is much more grounded than in previous films, and for once, it doesn’t feel like Ernest is out of place.

Douglas Seale is up there with the great performances of Santa Claus on screen. While this is a slapstick comedy of silliness led by Varney, Seale has managed to bring humanity and care to a well played role. Santa as played by Seale, is at the end of his tenure, and it is the soft moments of reflection that makes the audience connect with Santa and care for this unique portrayal of Father Christmas.

The Ernest films have always made me laugh with their silly jokes and crazy antics, but Ernest Saves Christmas is a sweet tale about the power of faith. It’s the best of all the Ernest films, and the fond memories I have from childhood when I saw this movie at the theatres haven’t changed.  

Cinematic Complaints

There is a certain level of silliness that comes with an Ernest movie. If you aren’t a fan of Jim Varney’s character than you should skip Ernest Saves Christmas.

Fun Film Facts

  • The scene where Ernest visit’s his friend Vern’s house was shot on Residential Street at Disney’s MGM (Hollywood) Studios. The house façade would become a popular sight on the Backstage Studio Tour attraction for the theme park when it opened in 1989. The entire street would be demolished for the construction of the Lights, Motors… Action! Stunt Show Spectacular in 2005. The stunt show was replaced by Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
  • Douglas Seale also voiced the Sultan in 1992’s Aladdin.
  • This is the only Ernest film not to have a villain.
  • The Orlando Children’s Museum is a stand in for the Orlando Science Center.
  • Child’s Play kept Ernest Saves Christmas from being number one at the box office on opening weekend.
  • This is the only time when Ernest’s friend Vern appears on screen in the films. Though we don’t see Vern, he is a part of the scene when Ernest delivers a Christmas tree to his home.
  • Director John Cherry has publicly stated that Ernest Saves Christmas is the best of the film series.
  • This was the first Ernest film where Jim Varney dressed up as Aunt Nelda.

The Golden Popcorn Bucket Award

There is something magical about a wholesome Christmas movie. Any film that reflects on our belief in a supreme being like Santa Claus and how that belief makes us better is a great film. While Ernest Saves Christmas isn’t Citizen Kane, it is a quality Christmas movie that you can sit down and watch with your whole family. You will laugh, you might get sentimental, but you will cheer for Ernest as he tries to save Christmas.

I give Ernest Saves Christmas a solid 4 Golden Popcorn Bucket rating.

Coming Attractions

Next week the Christmas movie season gets a little angelic help from Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife.

Production Credits

Directed by John R. Cherry III

Produced by Touchstone Pictures


  • Jim Varney as Ernest
  • Douglas Seale as Santa
  • Noelle Parker as Harmony
  • Oliver Clark as Joe Carruthers

Release Date: November 11, 1988

Budget: $6 million

Box Office Gross

Domestic: $28,202,109